It might feel like we rolled into 2019 fifteen minutes ago; but here we are, already nearing the year’s close and facing down another rapidly approaching Christmas. In families like mine all over the country, people are going about their usual holiday traditions: putting up a tree, playing Christmas music and punching strangers over good deals on electronics at the mall… But there’s one tradition that’s been taking the country by storm in recent years, and which makes me cringe every time I see it: the Elf on the Shelf.
Now, for those of you without young children, let me explain the premise behind this nefarious little creation: The Elf on the Shelf is a stuffed elf that we’re supposed to tell our kids works directly for Santa Clause himself. Each night, while our kids are asleep, we’re supposed to move Santa’s little helper to a new part of the house to help bolster the lie we’re telling our kids about Santa’s surveillance network. This is all predicated on the idea that this all-powerful man can see you when you’re sleeping and can sneak into your house at any time to judge your behavior and decide if you’re worthy of gifts.
Tell me again why I should be teaching my daughter that this is a good thing?
Now I know that there are plenty of folks out there that see the Elf on the Shelf as a bit of harmless fun; and while I tend to be a real Grinch 11 months out of the year, I really do love the holiday season and its general sense of positivity and togetherness. I really don’t want to be a party pooper here, but as silly and harmless as the Elf on the Shelf seems to us parents, I do have serious concerns about how it normalizes the concept of constant surveillance for the next generation of Americans.
Now, I’m no parenting expert. I’m just a dad that’s trying his best to do a good job, but my generation has already done a terrible job of managing our expectations of privacy. It was my generation that first fully embraced the internet; that blindly began sharing our most personal thoughts with the world; and that failed to recognize the serious ways our digital exploits could affect our lives in the real world.
Today, we continue to harbor a sort of laissez-faire attitude about the constant eye of both governmental and corporate surveillance as they each pry through our lives in search of ways to sell us a new product or otherwise exploit our personal information.
Here in the United States, we tend to think of China as some sort of technological dystopia, thanks to stories about having to scan your face to gain access to the internet, and about social credit scores determining your value to society. But back home we shrug our shoulders when faced with the incremental steps toward the very same outcome. When a celebrity’s nude photos get hacked, we blame the 22-year-old woman for having the audacity to take photos of herself on her own personal phone. When a company’s e-mails get hacked and exposed to the world, we make great memes about North Korea doing it — but we certainly don’t shift our behavior or expectations. When foreign nations use our personal information to tailor propaganda specifically to us, we argue about whether we believe it’s real.
It’s like we built a pool, filled it with sharks, jumped in and then whenever someone gets bitten, we blame them, or occasionally the shark… but never ourselves for building the pool. Even when the shark attack hits close to home and affects a family member or friend, we don’t get out of the pool… we just watch and cringe, hoping it won’t happen to us next.
How on earth did we ever get to this point? Easy. Through incremental normalization of ridiculous things. Recently, an Australian privacy activist named Max Schrems requested to see the personal data Facebook was storing about him. What he received was shocking: Facebook’s collected data didn’t amount to 100 pages, or 500… they sent him a whooping 1,222-page document containing everything from phone numbers of his closest family members to an archive of all the private messages that he had deleted. We pretty much all know and agree that Facebook is evil at this point… but we’re still using it to share memes about Baby Yoda.
Which brings me back to the adorable little Elf on the Shelf that so many of us use to trick our kids into behaving. Silly as it may seem, we’re extending the normalization of surveillance into our kids’ lives, encouraging them to behave because they’re always being watched, and teaching them to get comfortable with the idea. These kids are going to grow up and face what is likely to be the greatest privacy challenges in history, with personal data being leveraged for everything from tailored marketing to political blackmail. And to them, it’ll seem like business as usual. After all, if you didn’t want to be put on Santa’s naughty list, you should have known he was always watching.
So, my kiddo’s not getting any elves. And when she asks why she doesn’t get one when the other kids do, I’ll tell her it’s because, in our house, we do the right thing even when nobody’s looking.
I admit, that might lead to some acting up during the month of December; but I hope it will also lead to her growing into an adult that doesn’t expect to live under the watchful eye of a powerful entity that gets to decide if you’re good or bad, naughty or nice or anything in between.
So before you set your elf up tonight, take a minute to think about the issue and how it relates to your kids. Do you really want them growing up comfortable with the idea of inviting oversight and governance into their bedrooms? Because that sort of thing is commonplace in North Korea and China… but it’s not a lesson that seems very in keeping with America’s ideals.
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