What is it like to be a teenager these days? I suspect the question is unanswerable–to a teenager, isn’t it just like asking “what is it like to breathe?” And to anyone else–well, we can look at it from outside, but that’s about it. Still, it seems to me that it’s different to be a teenager now than it was when I was one. My life is different from my daughter Mariah’s in many ways, but terrorism and communication may be the two biggest. I flew on airplanes without taking off my shoes or putting my liquids and gels into tiny containers and Ziploc bags. I drove in cars without telephones. I looked up facts in the encyclopedia. I had secrets.
It’s hard to have secrets in a facebook, 24/7, cell phone and internet and online banking world. My daughter Mariah’s friends on facebook, for example, notice if she doesn’t update. Or if she does: a friend who is in both of our networks e-mailed me to ask if Mariah had broken up with her boyfriend when she noticed a status change on Mariah’s page. (She had, in fact, dumped him–and all 300 of her friends knew it.) In a world that has felt increasingly dangerous since before she was a teenager, maybe it’s comforting to know that her friends are watching, but I sometimes find it disconcerting.
Still, I imagine she has a few secrets–what teenager doesn’t? Two recent novels for teens suggest that secrecy, being watched, and watching, really are central to teen lives today. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (Tor, 2008), Marcus Yallow (aka “w1n5t0n”) is a teenage hacker and gamer who does his best to foil his school’s constant surveillance, which includes gait-recognition cameras and school-issued laptops that record every keystroke. But in the aftermath of a terror attack, his attempts to elude school and government surveillance begin to look fishy, and he is quickly labeled a “suspect.” Set in a believably near future, Little Brother explores what happens when the government “protects” its people by violating their privacy. Marcus, used to being watched all the time, is primed to fight back when it’s not just his school but his country that doesn’t trust him. Knowing he’s watched, he becomes the watcher, using the technology that tracks him to his own advantage.
While E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion, 2008) doesn’t initially seem to be taking on quite such serious issues, it’s similarly concerned with secrecy, with watching and being watched. Frankie, a sophomore in an elite boarding school, has little in common with Marcus Yallow: he’s a tech-head gamer in a San Francisco public school while she’s a former Debate Club nerd turned almost It-Girl at Alabaster Prep, in northern Massachusetts. Like Marcus, though, she asks questions, and when she doesn’t like the answers, she acts.
But where Marcus tries to operate under the radar, for the most part, Frankie is trying to be noticed–by the right people, for the right reasons. Having “developed” over the summer, she’s acquired the “right” boyfriend, but she’s frustrated to find that he doesn’t quite take her seriously. As she tries to get him to, she develops into something of a criminal mastermind–prep school variety. Like Marcus (though at a much simpler level) she manipulates the technologies of communication that bind us all these days, and spearheads a variety of high-level pranks that begin to function as social satire, not just teenage amusement. And Frankie, like Marcus, keeps secrets in order to stay true to herself.
It’s Lockhart who best articulates what it is to be a teenager today–and, as she does, I realize it’s not all that different from when I was a teen, after all. She describes a a class Frankie takes called “Cities, Art, and Protest” (a class that, were it taught today, would include Doctorow’s Little Brother). In class Frankie encounters the idea of the panopticon, the model prison designed–but never built–by the late eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In the panopticon (as elaborated by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish–and yes, this is the first YA novel I’ve ever read that cited Foucault), “everyone . . . knew they could be watched at all times, so in the end, only minimal watching actually needed to happen. The panopticon would create a sense of paranoia so pervasive that its inhabitants became practically self-governing” (54). The narrator goes on to explain how Foucault uses the panopticon as a metaphor for Western society:
Someone is watching you.
Or, someone is probably watching you.
Or, you feel like someone’s watching you.
. . .
You start to think that whomever is watching you is larger than life. That the watcher knows stuff about you that you never told anyone. (54)
The panopticon motivates both novels, as I think it motivates much of teenage (and older) life today. We regulate ourselves so that the watcher can’t find anything; we know we’re being watched, but we pretend we aren’t. You can defeat the panopticon by going underground, as Marcus briefly considers, or–as Frankie and Marcus both do, and as facebookers all over the world do as well–by anticipating it, publicizing oneself before anyone else gets the chance, telling the secrets so they lose their power. That goes against many of our impulses, and it takes Frankie and Marcus both a while to turn the tables (if they really do). But in their explorations of the panopticon they remind me of my own struggles with self-expression, self-presentation, and surveillance: what are high school cliques, after all, but little versions of the panopticon?
But it’s also true that the panopticon has expanded since my teenage years. The other day I got a call from my bank, which is also Mariah’s bank. Her account is still linked with mine, so they told me why they were calling: her bank card had been used twice, at gas stations, within the last hour and a half. Since that kind of usage is often fraudulent, they were just checking to make sure she hadn’t lost the card.
As it turned out, she hadn’t–she’d just had trouble with a gas pump, and hadn’t gotten her tank filled up the first time–so no harm was done. But it got me thinking: her bank knew exactly where her card was. They knew where she was, even when I didn’t. That’s an expansion of surveillance that’s matched by her cell phone company, by cameras in parking lots and at tollbooths, and probably at places I no longer even notice. When I was in high school, we didn’t have facebook, but we policed ourselves and each other just as fiercely; Mariah has always lived in a world where that self-policing is backed up by an ever-growing “security apparatus.” I’m grateful, then, for these books that remind me of just how creepy that can feel, and how to fight back.