Catherine Waite Phelan

Professor of Communication C. W. Phelan presented on a research project as a participant in the 19th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association at the University of Maine, June 2018.  The title of her paper was “Privacy Past and Future.”

The study of media ecology investigates media environments, the idea that communication technologies and modes of information alter our social environment. For example, consider the myriad ways in which the introduction of hand-held digital devices has altered how we speak to and about one another. media ecology argues that the introduction of a new media technology inevitably alters social norms and structures.

As an interdisciplinary communication scholar, Phelan is interested in the ways in which emergent social networks make our personal experiences more public and our identities less bound. Phelan’s presentation incorporated the perceptions of her students regarding their experience with privacy and social media.

She writes that “the students I work with are creating a very different social world. My retrograde assumption that they need to understand privacy is right, but in some ways irrelevant. They may end up understanding a new form of privacy through the lens of that emergent social environment. They are teaching me about that environment.”

In turn, Phelan encourages her students to consider why privacy may be essential to the human condition.

She argues that mid-20th-century views of privacy, as well as speech, are profoundly different from the currently shared experiences of privacy and speech. It is easy for concerned citizens to be distracted by the content of an e-post that lacks civility, but more challenging to notice the ways in which the digital revolution is reconfiguring the foundational premises of the American democracy.  How we conceptualize privacy and how we experience speech have been altered. Each communication revolution, in turn, has altered political, social, and economic practices.

Some people may feel like privacy is disappearing. Others may feel like we don’t need privacy. Phelan is committed to exploring these crucial questions with her students. She suggests that if one’s messages, purchases, health information, financial information and personal cell conversations can be tracked and manipulated as aggregate data, our shared understanding of what it means to be human may be altered. 

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