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Public and private: space and media

By Nell Haynes, on 10 February 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

When Daniel Miller came to visit my fieldsite in Northern Chile a few weeks ago, I took him on a walking tour of the city. He had just arrived from his own fieldsite in Trinidad, and as we walked he kept remarked that two places are quite different. They share certain aspects: warmth, nearby beaches, revealing clothing, and gated homes. Yet, he told me that compared to the razor wire or broken glass-topped fences in Trinidad, these just didn’t seem as intimidating. Similarly, we discussed the ubiquity of car alarms as the continuously sounded that evening as we sat in my apartment. “Are they really protecting anything if one goes off every three minutes?” I asked.

A few days after Danny left, I was having coffee with a Catholic priest in a nearby neighborhood. Telling me about his perceptions of the town after living here 6 years, he lamented the lack of “confianza” or trust between neighbors. “Neighbors like each other, but there’s not much trust between them.” He suggested this is a product of the fact that the city is new. It has only been incorporated for a decade. None of the adults who live here grew up in these neighborhoods. The fences are high but there is no neighborhood watch group here.

In a lot of ways this explains the ways I have been warned about safety here. People just don’t seem to trust what might happen in public space. The fences around houses may in fact be a way of delimiting the private from the public in a way that leaves no questions as to where the boundaries lie. And by claiming the space as private rather than public, perhaps that makes it a little safer.

One thing I noticed right away upon arriving here is that people rarely use their phones in public. Not in the plaza, on the bus, or while waiting in line at the supermarket. When Danny and I visited the local market near the municipal gymnasium, we asked a group of vendors about this. One woman, who has a clothing stall in the market told us people never have their phones out in public because they are afraid someone will come by and swipe it. The most recent statistics I could find were from 2008, when 1,236 non-violent robberies (the type that might result in having their cell phone stolen from their hands as they sit in the plaza, or their pocket in a busy market). This is not particularly high, roughly matching national statistics, yet I am given pause that perhaps many such thefts go unreported. About a year ago, online security company ESET reported almost 60% of Latin American residents have had at least one cellular phone stolen. The Catholic priest also told me that the most recent statistics he has seen suggests that about 40% of Alto Hospicio residents have had some personal effect stolen in the last year. “Probably because their billfold or phone is sticking out of their pocket in a public place.” While statistics like “40%” and “1,236 reported” might not necessarily reveal much, I do sense that cellular phone theft is quite common and the vendedora is correct: people know this and protect themselves by not using their phone in public.

So, I wonder then, if there is a certain “privateness” to the cell phone. And perhaps to the internet in general. Though one may interact with their friends though social media, that is generally something done while in private space. Even the local call center/internet café provides patrons with rather large cubicles while they use the computers. Though you might be airing your dirty laundry on facebook for all of your friends, the person physically next to you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) know.

So these walls, these fences, these car alarms, and these cubicles provide a sense of delineation. A car alarm may be tripped just as easily by someone doing a bad parking job or a ball thrown amiss as by someone trying to steal it. Fences can be jumped. Cubicles can be peeked around (at least one young man quickly turned off his pornographic video as Danny and I walked by in the internet center). But that is not the point. The point, perhaps, is to say this is mine, and this is private. If you touch this, walk past it, or look at my screen, you are transgressing a boundary. So however social, social media might be, for these Northern Chilean users, it ideally retains a sense of the private.