A few days ago, we filmed at IS 339, a middle school in the Bronx that until recently had been chronically underperforming. The current principal, Jason Levy, brought in a 1:1 laptop program and is using digital tools like Google to completely revamp the school. We'll be posting some of the video we shot there next week.
While the laptop program has indisputably been a success, the kids, being kids, spend a good chunk of time goofing off. Since they all have laptops with wireless access to the internet, they tend to goof off online. They all have the proxies to get around DOE restrictions on sights like YouTube and MySpace. The boys play video games, and the girls in particular love Photo Booth, which allows them to use the camera in their laptop like a live video mirror.
One of the highlights of the day was when Assistant Principal Dan Ackerman showed us how he can access what's going on on every student's laptop using a program called Apple Remote Desktop. Ackerman has access to the laptop of every kid in the school through this program, and he can switch from one to another and watch what the kids are doing on their computers in real time. The sixth and seventh graders all have cameras enabled in their laptops, so not only can Ackerman see their screens, he can see their faces. He can push a button and see a seventh grade girl in social studies class two floors away, peering at herself in video, putting on lip gloss, fixing her hair. He can also communicate with her: to freak the kids out and remind them they're being watched, he sometimes will take a picture of them (he can control their laptops remotely) in Photo Booth, or interrupt their IM conversation with his own message, telling them to get back to work.
Sitting next to Ackerman watching him watch his students was a really profound experience. Sure, the kids all know they're being monitored, and they don't seem terribly upset about it. After all, they're in middle school, and the laptops don't belong to them, so they have no real expectation of privacy. But there's something about having access to a moment as intimate as someone else looking in a mirror that says volumes about how our relationship to privacy as a society is changing. It rattled me, not because I necessarily disapprove of what Ackerman is doing, but because I realized how relatively easy it has become for anyone to watch anyone else at any time.
Today, I had two meetings via video Skype, a relatively new thing for me. The meetings went well, but when I signed off and the camera went to black, I had a momentary shudder. I realized I wasn't completely confident that the camera in my laptop was no longer recording me. Was there a chance that the people on the other end of the call-- or anyone else-- could still see me? After all, there was the camera in my laptop, still pointed straight at my face. Who's to know if anyone was watching?