Invasion of privacy

Even recalcitrant scholars can’t escape the mobile’s reach, says Sally Feldman

September 1, 2011

What is it about academics and their privacy? I and my senior team at the University of Westminster are looked after by administrative staff who have to perform the tricky juggling act of managing our schedules. My colleagues don’t make the task any easier. One won’t allow his secretary access to his diary. Another reluctantly allows his the odd glimpse - but routinely infuriates her by adding his own engagements that override appointments she has already made.

What these scholars find difficult to grasp is that co-ordinating our appointments is a hugely complex task that can only be done if the secretarial team knows our weekly movements. Nor do they realise how much easier their lives would be if only they would give in and allow themselves to be organised.

“Imagine you’re abseiling,” I urged one recalcitrant head of department, “and your life depends on one person who is holding the rope and making sure you’re not going to plunge into the abyss. You’d have to trust them absolutely, wouldn’t you? That’s how I want you to think about the office staff. They are going to protect you as long as you put yourself in their hands.”

That worked for a while. Now he does share his diary with his secretary, but insists on filling it with strange codes - such as “WAH” for “working at home” or “PA” for “private appointment”.

“I can handle that,” she told me. “One guy I worked for used to use the letters ‘OAM’, short for ‘open-air meeting’. What he meant was the golf course.”

I used to wonder whether this aversion to openness was just a feature of the average scholar’s detachment from menial matters: if you are preoccupied with exploring the hermeneutics of mid-period Hitchcock, you’re less likely to be aware of what it’s like to be on the other end of a boss who won’t confide in you and disappears for the afternoon without notice.

But I recently stumbled upon a far more convincing explanation. In Islands of Privacy, sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng suggests that the whole business of scheduling appointments and establishing daily routines is a power arena.

“Agenda setting is about the ability to decide what will and won’t be allowed to get people’s attention as well as the ways in which that might happen,” she writes. “From this perspective, power is very much about deciding the extent to which something - or someone - will be more or less accessible to others. This includes, incidentally, the agenda-setting process itself.”

While that process enables an assertion of control, it can also be used to define the barriers between work and home.

“By providing transitional space and time,” explains Nippert-Eng, “even segmentors’ daily, scheduled commutes help them place and keep a boundary between the social, mental and physical worlds of home and work.”

But keeping these spheres separate has been made increasingly difficult by the advent of new technologies. While email and social-networking sites have created far more relationships than individuals would ever have had before, they also mean that more people than ever have greater and less controllable access to each other.

So there are far more clamorous demands for our attention - not just face-to-face interruptions and postal ones but relentless commands to be available and online wherever we are and at whatever time.

The most overwhelming impact on our quest for privacy is made, of course, by the mobile phone. Its ability to trespass on individual privacy was luridly illustrated by this summer’s hacking scandal, in which News of the World journalists are alleged to have routinely obtained celebrities’ personal information by illegally accessing their phone messages.

But in a less dramatic way, the mobile phone has transformed the strategies we use to preserve our personal boundaries. Rather than serving as a mere convenience, it has become an addiction.

A study quoted by Nippert-Eng revealed that 14 per cent of the world’s mobile phone users report that they “have stopped in the middle of a sex act to answer a ringing wireless device”. In a memorable scene in Sex and the City, Steve is having sex with a new girlfriend when Miranda rings. He answers, naturally, then has to explain to the woman beneath him that he’s going back to his former love.

“You’re breaking up with me while you’re still inside me?” she asks, incredulous.

You’d like to think, wouldn’t you, that academics are above such worldly habits? After all, theirs is a sphere of secrecy: scholars are notorious for fiercely protecting their research and teaching, and for their reluctance to share. But, sadly, they are as enslaved by their mobiles as anyone else - they will give out their numbers to students without a thought, and are unable to switch off their phones even during assessment boards or validation meetings. A colleague who habitually recruits researchers in Eastern Europe tells me that, quite frequently, job applicants there will answer a mobile call during the interview.

With so much blurring of the lines between private and public lives, between work and home, even holidays are no longer sacrosanct. At the moment I’m on a beach in France and the phone is shrieking for the third time. As I try to concentrate on making a decision about an impertinently huge expenses claim, I notice that my left hand is beginning to scrape a hole in the sand beneath my sun lounger. A hole exactly the right size for my head.

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