Friday, April 14, 2006

The Virtual Global Taskforce

Yesterday, I received the following message from my younger child's school


On Tuesday, April 25 we will be examining how the Internet works as an online society including security, safety, and guidelines.

Our guest speakers will include specialists and professionals in the field of online communication including a detective from the FBI who specializes in Internet security.

We encourage you to bring friends and colleagues, especially parents

Refreshments will be provided from 6:00-6:30
Childcare is available

** Due to the sensitive nature of some of the discussions we will be having, we ask that children NOT attend the presentation **

This e-mail raised several questions in my mind about the rhetorical nature of the group's moves at exclusion. Why are "friends and colleagues" encouraged to attend this meeting while children are to be left at home? Why are the most important aspects of an "online society" "security, safety, and guidelines"? Why is the only named "specialist" a "detective from the FBI"? Wouldn't a family evening that encouraged kids to share their experiences and expertise in environments for online learning be more valuable for reinforcing social norms? Isn't information literacy more important for our children's academic success than avoiding porn? Given the number of young children with cell phones and their access to mobile networks for handheld computing, is it realistic to emphasize the family desktop as the main site for unsupervised online use?

But since I'm morbidly curious, I'm still debating with myself about whether or not to go. It would probably be an interesting evening, given the broad ethnographic sample of parents at this diverse Title I school, but I resent the fear-mongering that I'm already getting from the mainstream media. I'm also tired of parent-centered messages that imply that mothers and fathers are entitled to certain forms of social power (and implicitly the right to legislate for others).

It's not that I'm insensitive to issues about sexual exploitation. As a former employee of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and the California Youth Authority, I'm well aware to the psychic havoc that victimization wreaks. But I also know that face-to-face offenders are much more likely to be the culprits, particularly family members and neighbors. Even the New York Times exposé, "Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World" had an enabling father in the story as well as more anonymous online predators.

I certainly can't bury my face in an online newspaper to avoid the publicity about these anxieties about cyber-sexuality. This week, the New York Times covered the hiring of a "Security Officer" for MySpace to protect minors and other sexually vulnerable users from victimizers.

Of course, there are now many MySpace alternatives. For example, The Institute for the Future covered Xianz, the Christian social networking site. (The site is spelled with an "X" like "X-mas.") Despite the emphasis on denomination not domination, attention-getting young people still described themselves with adjectives like "dirty" and "frustrated," but they also used antiquated descriptors like "chipper." Browsing the Xianz sites, I was struck by how many users described themselves as "homeschooled" and wondered if their approach to online environments might be affected by this sheltered upbringing. (The New York Times also recently covered MySpace alternative Orkut, which is sweeping Latin America.)

Last month, the White House encouraged website visitors to take part in a surreal online child pornography chat from which I learned about something called the Virtual Global Taskforce, a multi-country "sting" operation designed to catch pedophiles. I was struck by the organization's concern with branding their intellectual property in their section on logo guidelines and by their pride in having won what seemed to be a trivial online award.

I was also interested to see attention to what Lev Manovich has called the logic of "selection": children are encouraged to add the site to their "favorites" and to "cut and paste" offending messages into a window for the scrutiny of law enforcement officers.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you that we need to address children as something other than security risks, whether it's at the playground or on the internet. Our kids are writers, artists, researchers, and self-publishers. We need to have open discussions with them about the risks and benefits of internet activity, just as we do concerning other forms of social life. But mapping the internet as still another Fear Zone will produce neither happy parents, nor forthcoming children. The family that blogs together ...

8:09 AM  

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