Saturday, November 29, 2008

Private-public spaces

The other day I was in the library. As I wandered back among the shelves of new books, a flight of shelves that is placed right in the center of the space, I heard a couple arguing. A man and a woman were sitting back by the windows, and, while not exactly yelling, were certainly speaking at a volume level that seemed surprising for a library.

The subject matter was even more surprising. Apparently this was a couple just after or in the process of a divorce, and they were discussing surprisingly intimate details of their lives. He doesn't like that her new boyfriend has been in prison, she doesn't like the influence of his new girlfriend on their daughter, he has some stuff of hers that he doesn't want to return, she doesn't want him stepping on her property: the usual sordid stuff of break-ups. (In case you think I was lingering to hear, they managed to cover this apparently well-trod territory in about 45 seconds; as it was, I inched away well before I had looked at all the new history books.)

It occurred to me that, despite the ever-increasing assertion of a "right to privacy," we are moving farther away from that all the time. Here is a crude taxonomy of the places we used to have:
  • Private-private: There was a time when a bedroom, for example, was off-limits to anyone who wasn't in the family. I'm sure this is still true, for the most part, but our common agreement that there are such spaces seems to me to be eroding. We see bedrooms on TV, not just in fictional programs (where we can tell ourselves that it's just a set), but on reality shows, and we can wonder whether these places are truly considered private.
  • Public-private: These are the places which belong to us, but into which we can invite people. These spaces have evolved quite a bit, from the formal receiving parlor through the living room to the family room of today, but they continue to fulfill their function of a space we control, but to which we can allow access to others.
  • Public-public: There are still places where there is no real expectation of privacy, though that can be modified by behavior. For example, if you're in a public plaza talking with someone openly, it would not be unusual for an acquaintance to walk up and join your conversation. (If you're speaking more furtively or intimately, we recognize that as an attempt to create an artificial place of privacy.)
  • Private-public: These are the places where, though they are ostensibly public, we maintain a reasonable illusion of privacy. For me, these include libraries and, perhaps, benches - I expect that I am in isolation in those places, I respect other people's privacy as I would expect them to respect mine.
It is these last for which I see the most change. Train passenger cars are a case in point; some years ago, a given individual would be allowed to do whatever they're doing and be left alone. Now, we hear people carrying on loud, fairly intimate cell phone conversations that violate the walls that were previously understood to exist.

There was a time it would have been unthinkable to hold a divorce discussion in the library. Today, it's seen as a real option, despite the potential for public embarrassment (did that woman really want people, some of whom might know her, hearing that "Jimmy" was an ex-con?). Perhaps they saw the library as somehow safe, given the public aspect of it, but that shows no understanding of the violation of norms that their meeting represented.

This is a topic I may return to, since my thoughts are at the moment relatively unformed. I find distinctions among the four types of space I have listed to be significant and useful (the invitation of a date to a private-private space is a clear signal, similar to the moment in a French conversation when references move from vous to tu; if everyone routinely traipses through the bedroom, it seems to me something is lost). The blurring of the lines carries with it a real social dislocation, one that will likely need to be replaced - but with what?

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