On the Beach

Jenny Diski

Christena Nippert-Eng loves the beach in spite of the noise, the bugs, the pebbles, the filth and the fact that her dermatologist insists she wear factor-60 sunscreen from April to October. It’s a nexus thing for her and she is quite lyrical about it. The beach is a place where all manner of stuff comes together, juxtaposed ‘in the most enchanting of ways … Creatures that walk, creatures that fly and creatures that swim intermingle here, scaring, fascinating, feeding and amusing each other.’ Air mixes with water, sand and wind, the fresh with the rotten, salty, sweet. Stillness is punctuated by rhythmic poundings, erratic splashes and insistent shrieks. Nippert-Eng loves the beach because she is ‘drawn to the phenomenon of boundaries’. It’s such a good place to observe the public and private meeting, overlapping and drawing back that she made a diagram of a day on North Beach in Chicago delineating the various social zones. Sandcastles and beach balls at the water’s edge, a phalanx of family icons – umbrellas and baby buggies – take the space nearest to the water, further back are the bicycles and mobile phones of the single and young, and just behind them a solitary fat figure (‘an especially hirsute, grossly obese man wearing nothing but a fluorescent yellow thong’) lying on the sand grossing out the late-arriving, cycling, music-playing, mobile-chatting youth, of whose disgust he is oblivious. The beach is a happy metaphor for the boundaries of privacy, and the work that people put into achieving it, as well as the degrees of success and failure others have in acknowledging the boundaries or even being aware that they exist. Everyone knows their place, except for those who don’t. Nippert-Eng observed a mother who briefly left her blanket and umbrella to check on her children down by the water. When she returned, a man with a child in a large buggy had laid out his towel in front of her, blocking her view. She said nothing, it was a public beach and the space had been vacant, but in a moment she lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in the direction of the man and his baby. After an exchange of words, the man moved to the left and the woman blew her smoke to the right. A battle between visual and olfactory privacy resolved, as Nippert-Eng says, by ‘a stroke of symbolic interaction genius’.

Islands of Privacy makes the move from the idea of privacy as a series of islands in an ocean of public existence, on the beaches along which we can watch the negotiations, to more common interstitial places and objects: wallets and bags; mobile phones and electronic communications; doors, windows and front yards. These various liminal areas structure the chapters, while the substance of the book largely consists of 74 people’s transcribed responses to a 132-point questionnaire about each of these items or places. What the book gains from the predominance of the survey are verbatim transcriptions of individual voices and some interesting anecdotes, but much of Nippert-Eng’s engaging enthusiasm for beaches and pleasingly written speculation is lost to the formal requirements of sociology. It’s perverse of me to complain, since she is a sociologist writing a sociology book, but I would have been more content to spend the book on the beach (or peeking through windows, rifling through wallets and checking people’s mobiles) while Nippert-Eng continued beguilingly to observe and comment on the behaviour of strangers.

Although the survey group were from varying and sometimes impoverished backgrounds, they were at the time of interview ‘an undeniably privileged population’, all of whom lived in the Chicago area. They were contacted and asked to participate because of the author’s ‘personal knowledge about them and desire to speak with them’, though a few were recommended by interviewers on the project. As a result it is hardly a diverse cohort. The respondents are a ‘judgment sample’, not a random selection. The insights, Nippert-Eng points out, ‘may or may not hold for other populations in the US’. Or even for other populations in Chicago, let alone for other parts of the world. Still, if you are going to investigate what happens to people’s sense of the private at their doors and windows and in their front yards, on their mobiles and computers, between work and home and in their wallets, then they will have to be people who have houses, electronic goods, jobs, as well as money and credit cards to put in wallets and bags – though I suppose the dispossessed, out of work or homeless poor could sit on the beach along with the families, the fat and the young. The meaning of privacy to the impoverished or unemployed, as well as to different ethnic groups, or to the Spanish or to Kenyans, is a question that hovered in my mind as I read Islands of Privacy.

What is true for almost everyone, however, is Nippert-Eng’s insight that in any social world privacy is in the gift of others rather than under our own control. What mainly interests her is the work the individuals in her group do to enhance their privacy or to try to ensure that only certain chosen people or situations can impinge on it. We can assume that there’s not much the very poor can do to improve their privacy, while the very rich can simply write cheques or buy an island; but those in the social middle must make considerable efforts to get some control over their privacy. Nippert-Eng prefaces her North Beach diagram with an answer from Gina to the question ‘Would you say that privacy is a problem for you?’ ‘Are you kidding?’ she replies, and gives an example. While spending a day at the pool with her five children she discovered that the string of her tampon had disappeared: ‘It was up there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.’ As soon as she got everyone home she let out the dogs, let them back in and gave them water, put the towels in the washing machine, checked her messages and made sure her five children had drinks and snacks before announcing that she was going to take a shower and was not to be disturbed for 15 minutes. Then she went to her bedroom and locked the door.

So I stand with my back in front of the mirror and I bend over, looking in the mirror, you know, so I could try to see what the heck I was doing. And there I am, poking around trying to get that string out. All of a sudden, Sarah pops her head out from under the bed – with this big smile – and yells: ‘Hi, Mommy!’

Nippert-Eng asks her readers to look at the amount of ‘work’ Gina has to do to ensure she has some privacy (and even that fails), and to consider also how much of her life must willingly or necessarily be disclosed to others: the personal information she has to give to get a mortgage for her house and the licence for her car to take the children out; the personal information and access she must allow to all sorts of others because she has a family and is a citizen. The complex division of privacy, disclosure and concealment is an issue for most people. Nippert-Eng is interested in how people try to maintain a comfortable balance between them. Gina is well aware of how small her island of privacy is and works hard to get that moment in the bedroom, but even so the will of others easily overcomes her best efforts.

The beach is never far away from Nippert-Eng’s thoughts. Later on, she imagines a girlfriend, to whom she tells everything, revealing her personal information to others: ‘Here I was, thinking I was having a nice, private time, fooling around on my beach blanket with my boyfriend and giggling over it with my girlfriend. And then, with no warning whatsoever, I am in way, way over my head, drowning in a sea of unwanted accessibility.’ In case you think she is coming on a bit strong about the traumatic effect of the privacy violation, she gives her imagined girlfriend a name: ‘Let’s call her Linda Tripp.’

Only if you took a secret to mean something that only one person knew would secrets remain firmly under control. Even then, drink, drugs or talking in your sleep might sabotage you, what with never being alone with an unconscious. The well-kept new identity given to Jon Venables when he was released on licence as an adult, was blown when at 27 he began to confess his true identity to complete strangers, unable to keep his own secret.

Having and sharing secrets might sometimes be a way of achieving privacy, yet achieving privacy could equally ensure a secret is kept. Again, both gaining privacy and owning secrets are primarily structured by questions of status and control. Who you tell a secret to, and who you keep a secret from, creates a special bond or degree of distance that defines a relationship. Telling or not telling someone a secret, and keeping a secret or violating it, are expressions of power relations. Think back to the playground chant ‘I’ve-got-a-se-cret.’ The quality of the secret doesn’t matter, it’s enough that there is one and you don’t know it. And it’s no good pretending you don’t care. You do care, you must care, because that is the point of the public announcement. When she declares she knows a secret, you know you are at her mercy; that she may or may not let you share her private knowledge. Once she has decided to tell it to you, however, she is at your mercy. You can take her power simply by telling everyone. Even if it’s not important, even if the secret is that she hasn’t got a secret. What could be more private than the knowledge of someone’s lack of a secret? Perhaps a secret that an entire nation, police force and political class know about and choose to keep.

Gina, unlike Jon Venables and Monica Lewinsky and the British nation, didn’t have a secret. Her lost tampon cord was a matter of privacy, not a secret: ‘I mean, I’ve had five kids. You know? There are no mysteries here. I was just going to take care of the problem and that would be it.’ She only wanted some space and time for herself. Nippert-Eng sees the telling and keeping of secrets as subordinate to the main subject of privacy. I’m not sure. A private wedding and a secret wedding seem to be quite different kinds of things. Certainly a private funeral and a secret funeral are. She isn’t alone, however, in considering secrets to be a subcategory of privacy, and they are often a vital precondition for its achievement. It turns out that celebrities and other wealthy individuals spend large sums of money on lawyers to ensure that their secrets are kept: in order, they say, to safeguard their privacy. Judges who grant them super-injunctions appear to agree. But you don’t have to be rich and famous at least to apply for a high degree of privacy, with some secrecy on the side. Apparently anyone can pay £30 to ask a local council to close off a village to the public in order to keep an event private. When Kate Moss married recently in a Gloucestershire village church she did just that. The local council, on payment of £30, considered her application and closed the roads to ensure her privacy (even though her house is in another village). Local residents were issued with permits allowing them access to their homes. The police cordoned off the area. Notices stated, not entirely coherently: ‘The council is satisfied the use of the road and public paths should be prohibited for the purpose of facilitating the holding of a relevant event, namely to reduce the disruption to traffic as a result of a private family celebration.’ Private, then, but it was apparently also a secret. According to the Guardian, when asked why he was preventing access on a public road, a police officer replied: ‘Our job is to assist with the road closures and to prevent disorder. Somebody may or may not be getting married.’ Three hundred friends of Kate Moss and her new husband were helicoptered into the embargoed village for the three-day ‘private family celebration’.

Many older people believe that the idea of privacy is as good as lost. Certainly, astonishing inroads have been made against the prudery those of us brought up in the 1950s hated so much. But prudery and privacy are different things. We may have wanted to do it in the road when we were young to shock the world out of its repressions, but no one I knew ever had a notion that they wanted the right to organise a dinner party, discuss their emotional life or, worst of all, arrange their diaries with their office PA while sitting on a train surrounded by strangers who can’t help but overhear. It’s not so much that the amount of privacy people want has diminished with the spread of electronic communications: the general understanding of what should be private appears to have undergone radical change. Or maybe what has actually happened is that the mobile phone, in particular, makes wherever you happen to be when you’re talking into it a temporary private space, putting the onus on other people to pretend to be unaware of what they can’t avoid hearing.

There were always problems with nosy neighbours, postmen and phone operators, or with sending a telegram at the post office and having the whole village know your business. But before mobile phones and email arrived, privacy was more or less assured in designated boundary areas both of space and time. Indoors was private, and to make sure you put up curtains so that people couldn’t look in (you knew to do this because you looked through other people’s uncurtained windows with relish). Your availability at work and your availability at home were for the most part clearly divided, and when you were on the way from one to the other, neither part of your life could make a claim on you. This, it seems, was not an unspoken social agreement about the right to privacy: as soon as the methods were available for colleagues, friends or family to phone you anywhere and anytime, they did. Travelling alone on a train was no longer a space to read or daydream, but a boredom hole to be filled with phone conversations. Trains became extended offices or facilitated pre-dinner chats, supermarkets have solitary shoppers making long-distance purchasing decisions with people at home. Everyone can be reached, everywhere, whenever. I only know two people who don’t use a mobile phone, and neither of them has their home telephone message service switched on. Phoning them when they’re out results in non-stop ringing, and a brief feeling of panic as if confronted by the black hole of eternity, and then annoyance at the idea that I can’t say what I want to say to them whenever I want to say it. For most of my life, and all human life before it, that was simply the way of the world.

Nevertheless, a notion of privacy persists among the respondents to Nippert-Eng’s survey, in spite of modernity’s best efforts. They all regularly screen their landline phones to avoid unwanted invasions of privacy from cold callers, check who is ringing on their mobiles before answering, use peepholes or entry cams to see who is outside when the doorbell rings unexpectedly, and won’t open the door if it’s someone wanting to convert them. The new availability given to people by their phones and email has not been entirely welcome. An enormous amount of management has always been required to sustain people’s wish for privacy, but now that the new technology has torn the curtains to tatters and erased the boundaries between inside and outside, interruption has become the norm. In the short period of time since they became ubiquitous, handsets and computer software have had to develop features specifically to deal with the problems they have created. These now come as standard. Like most of us, Nippert-Eng’s sample use spam filters and special email addresses, varying mobile rings or even alternative phones for different kinds of people or parts of their lives: family, friends, work colleagues and strangers. Even so the communications come thick and fast, crowding inboxes and voicemail, and expecting, it often seems, an instant response. Some people are so overwhelmed that they have resorted to a zero-inbox strategy: a mass email to everyone in their address list informing them that all unanswered emails in their inbox have been trashed, and not to expect a reply unless they actually re-email an urgent request. Letters gave people a breather, even the original home telephone made limited demands because it was attached to a particular place and you could always say you would ring back when you found what you were asked for somewhere else. Now, I traipse up and down stairs with the cordless phone in my hand while I look for files or an address, aware of the other party waiting for an immediate answer and checking their emails as they do so.

Privacy is now most importantly about keeping personal information safe, rather than a matter of simply keeping yourself to yourself. Most people in Nippert-Eng’s book were concerned about identity theft (as if listening to some stranger’s business or romantic call while you are sitting on a train watching sheep graze wasn’t identity theft enough). Their decisions about what was or wasn’t private in their wallets, and who they gave their credit card number or email address to were geared to their anxiety about someone at a distance stealing information from them. It had happened to some of the people, and as they describe it, trying to claw back money, property and even their name is the new nightmare. But on the whole they and most of us aren’t savvy enough about technology, or willing enough to believe fully in an invisible threat, to protect ourselves as carefully as we could. The virus analogy of bad things coming to you through the ether, messing with your files or taking your account numbers and passwords, functions much like the medical version. Very few of us take more than perfunctory precautions against either germs or computer viruses, because if we did our lives would be hampered by being so constantly and carefully on our guard. It’s much easier to buy goods online with a credit card than to send a cheque or go to the shop. It’s also very hard for most individuals to believe they personally will be a victim of something that happens to other people (herpes or phishing attacks), however much we understand the way it might be possible. One person just ‘pretends’, as she puts it, that her name isn’t anywhere on the internet. Another describes not backing up his computer files as ‘a certain leap of faith that things are going to be OK’. Nippert-Eng suggests we are naturally inclined to suppose best-case scenarios, that ‘the organisations we work for, the education systems that teach us how to think and what to pay attention to, the politicians who lead and plan for us and a whole slew of cultural manifestations as basic as our ideas of love and marriage – encourage us to focus entirely on best-case scenarios.’

This wasn’t such an error, perhaps, in a divided, slow world, where you probably had to have some individual communication with the conman or criminal who cheated or robbed you, but it can be pretty catastrophic when an invisible anyone, anywhere can get to your personal information without leaving a trace of themselves behind. For the most part it is the neurotically fearful or the very knowledgable who take seriously the surveillance problem posed by disappearing privacy boundaries and a world wide web full of electronic strangers. If we want to retain our privacy, such as remains of it, it looks as if we are going to have to learn to love paranoia and upgrade obsessive compulsive behaviour from a disorder to a necessity.