the digital world

How do you define personal space in the digital era? These photos offer a clue

Data is changing the shape of our personal 'bubble' – it’s now a global network.

In the digital world, any action we do generates data – whether browsing the internet, answering emails or messaging our friends. Translated into radio waves, this information can travel almost effortlessly through space in a split second. Data is all around us, invisibly occupying the space between ourselves and other objects in the built environment. My colleagues and I conducted a study to understand how the presence of all this data alters our understanding of personal and public spaces.

As a case study, we set up an open Wireless Local Area Network or WLAN in Plaza de Los Palos Grandes in Caracas, for people to connect free of charge for a limited period of time. A total of 123 people connected to our WLAN with their devices, sending and receiving packets of information to and from servers across the world.

Our participants sent and received information right across the world. Photo Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided
Our participants sent and received information right across the world. Photo Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

From the packets, we extracted the location of the servers to which each user connected. In the image below, we generated one line for each connection established between the person and the servers. It demonstrates how the data generated by an email to a close friend, composed in the intimate space between you and your device, has the potential to reach across the world.

Here’s how it works: the smart phone converts your email into radio waves and sends the information to a WiFi router. It’s then passed to your email provider’s servers, then – through the internet’s Transmission Control Protocol, which controls the movement of data across the web – to the other provider’s servers and to your friend’s inbox.

Changing space

People tend to think that personal communication originates within the intimate dimension of our personal space. We consider the space immediately around us to be ours and personal – it’s where we think, formulate ideas and speak with others. This study gave us the opportunity to consider how the shape of our personal space is changing as we live our digital lives in public spaces.

The complexity of the data traffic emitted by each of us in the public space. Photo Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided
The complexity of the data traffic emitted by each of us in the public space. Photo Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

The term “personal space” has meant different things since architects, urbanists, sociologist and geographers started studying it. In the 1960s, personal space was thought of as the distances we maintain from others, to control our interactions with them. The size of this invisible aura could vary, depending on cultural values, the density of people around you and other circumstances.

Scholars have tried to argue that in the digital era, our “personal bubble” is not just physical – it’s also virtual. They claim that your personal bubble is a membrane which filters the data you that send out and the information you receive back. It’s the sum of all the settings and agreements across different digital platforms – including apps, social media and email – as well as the phone itself, which help you to manage your personal, group and public data and communications.

Photo Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided
Photo Credit: Silvio Carta, Author provided

But our results show that in the digital realm, personal space isn’t like a bubble which surrounds each person, helping to define the nature of their encounters, relationships, intimacies or invasions. In fact, it’s more like a global network of connections, reaching everywhere, coming from each person whenever they send or receive a packet of data.

Our images show how personal space disperses through the atmosphere and materialises in someone else’s device in a matter of seconds, leaving traces in a dispersed constellation of servers. Because of this, personal space has become dynamic – it changes in real time with our digital interactions.

Given how sensitive we are to invasions of our physical personal space, it’s remarkable that many of us don’t even realise the extent of our digital personal space, which is scattered around servers and other devices around the world. By visualising the massive size and dispersed form of our digital personal space, people will become more protective of their data, taking a greater interest in the level of encryption, privacy and permissions granted to each app they use.

Personal space is no longer the immediate space that surrounds us and that moves with us. It is rather something more abstract – globally distributed and possibly everywhere at any time. The next time we look at our phone to send a text message, we should envision the real extent of our space, that goes to the other side of the globe in seconds to pin back to us. Our personal space is not a bubble anymore – it is a global network.

Silvio Carta, Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Design Research Group, University of Hertfordshire.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.