#MeToo, technology and the personal bubble

Older women seem to take a somewhat more nuanced view of sexual harassment and how to deal with it than young women. Frances Anderton asks why, and wonders if #MeToo reflects not only advances in women’s rights but huge behavioral, spatial and technological change.

DnA looks at design — and its social impact. It also considers social change through the lens of our designed environment.

So it is through that lens that DnA has been pondering the massive shift that is #MeToo. For example, we covered womenswear and the male gaze on this broadcast; on this one we talked with woman contractor Joan Barton about building in a man’s world. The following post considers some other dimensions of the movement — technology and public space — with a view to a possible on-air dialogue. Let us know your thoughts.

The New York Times has published an Op-Ed arguing that many women privately believe that while #MeToo and the surrounding press coverage have heroically exposed some vile behavior, the movement has also become overblown, ignores women’s agency and has gone into prudish, witchhunt territory.

Based on extensive conversations over the last three months with family, friends and colleagues ranging from age 13 to 80, this commentary rings true, except author Daphne Merkin’s contention that “many women” express this view. I have found that many — not all — older women (boomers and older Gen-Xers) share Merkin’s perspective while younger women seem more likely to express zero tolerance for any kind of harassment, an unconditional belief in the victimhood of women accusers, and a comfort with public shaming.

And I’ve been very curious as to why this is.

Is it simply jaded old punks versus Millennial idealists? A sex-obsessed generation versus a tech-obsessed one? A one-time man’s world versus a woman’s world in the making?

Or, I wonder, are we seeing something else, deeper, going on in the culture that represents the convergence and unintended consequences of a cultural and a design revolution? A shift that is behavioral, having to do with how we are raised; technological, having to do with the conduct of interpersonal relationships online; and spatial, having to do with our command of space?

Following are a few thoughts.

Behavioral change

Those of us now in our late 40s or older generally spent our childhoods out of sight and contact with parents, climbing trees or playing on swings and slides embedded in concrete.

We spent our late teens and twenties smoking and testing our limits in the nightclubs and dark streets of cities like New York or London, or hitchhiking rides with strange people in strange countries.

In young adulthood we worked in places where bosses were often bullies or sexual harassers or both.

Bad stuff happened, but for our generations there was nothing worse than being called a snitch. So we put up with a lot, learned to defend ourselves and understood that life came with an expectation of danger.

That sense of incipient danger was also part of the adventure of life. Many boomers and older Gen Xers look back on their youth and express amazement to still be alive. And that’s because we took risks, often by choice.  

And part of that risk-taking spilled into sexual dynamics in the workplace. While the handsy middle manager was generally not welcome, flirting was, and so was testing how far one could push a sex-power game in the office.

Safety by design

The next generations seem instead to be experiencing a life that from start to finish is padded with a cushion of safety, much of it by design (and much of it advanced by boomer parents.)

It starts with childhoods in homes where every sharp corner is guarded and outdoor playgrounds have floors of bouncy rubber.

Later, at elementary school, students are taught about their impregnable personal space bubbles (I had never heard of a personal space bubble until my teenage daughter educated me). School administrations go to great lengths to try and minimize bullying.

In their teens and 20s the risks of the nightclubbing years are mitigated by cell phones. Unappealing ideas and thoughts are avoidable in colleges that provide trigger warnings and safe spaces.

And snitching is no longer frowned upon. People in fact are encouraged to blab — to parents, to teachers, to human resources, to the police, to lawyers, to the press and, of course, to anyone who’s listening on social media.

Not all of this is bad; it perhaps helps make for a kinder, gentler society in some ways (cruelty and intolerance has moved online).

But it makes sense that this expectation of safety should now filter into the workplace too.

Technological change

Now let’s bring in tech.

A generation weaned on the computer has learned to conduct relationships on the screen.

Young children spend hours on iPads rather than messing around in the dirt or fighting with other kids.

Teens play video games instead of contact sports. And they embark on relationships online, sometimes conducting several stages of a fledgling romance via social media, barely meeting in person for a fumbled kiss or grope.

A few years back I taught a class of older teens who explained to me, you know you are getting intimate with someone when you Facetime your admirer and he/she is lying on his/her back with the computer sitting on his/her chest!

This chaste, non-touching engagement is offset by its extreme virtual opposite: pornography. Ubiquitous, online pornography is giving adolescent boys their first lessons in intercourse. One has to wonder if this is dulling their senses with regard to regular bodies and sexuality or giving girls warped impressions of how to present themselves and engage with men (which may contribute to later hook-up culture).

Later, in the workplace, they text or email entire conversations with colleagues that once took place in person.

And, as we have seen with much of today’s discourse and now #MeToo, they will share personal revelations and/or insults with a crowd that they wouldn’t say to an individual.

So young adults have gone through life with their personal bubbles intact thanks to a virtual wall of technology, and they have developed discomfort with uninvited touching and with challenging or confrontational situations.

The result seems to be a curious blend of feminist empowerment and physical disempowerment.

Future mating 

On one hand the Harvey Weinstein revelations and #MeToo have been thrilling. It is wonderful to get payback after hundreds if not thousands of years of demeaning or violent treatment by men.

The fact that, say, hotels are now introducing panic buttons for workers is an incredible step forward. And credit goes to the women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have forced the issue onto the front-burner.

But its excesses are troubling.

And, you have to wonder what is going to happen to mating in the future.

How will young women find dates, if men are scared to ask them out for fear they might be outed for inappropriate behavior?

Furthermore, if office romances are off-limits, does that mean more dependence on finding each other online, perhaps further diminishing the ability to navigate relationships in person?

#MeToo and public space

And, where does this leave conduct in public space?

There is a push right now for mass transit and greater densification. But such urban planning forces us into close proximity with each other.

Is the Millennial generation that believes it wants this ready to fend off its downsides: the groper on the bus or the train? The weird guy who lives upstairs in the apartment building and makes them feel uncomfortable?

Being periodically manhandled in crowded places has long been an unpleasant but normal hazard of urban life. But a 20-something told me recently (as we debated the ousting of Al Franken without due process) that she and her friends would be deeply upset at uninvited touching like a pinch of the bottom.

Well, good luck with riding the subway! Already Metro, which is exploring why transit ridership is dropping on many routes despite voter support for Measure M, has had to contend with sexual harassment on its trains.

Personal bubbles are the bodily extension of the suburban lifestyle — spent safely encapsulated in a car and a self-contained home. Technology has been only enhancing this atomization.

On the face of it, #MeToo seems like a triumph of feminism and the ongoing fight for workplace equality.

But it is arguably also a manifestation of other cultural and design changes happening too fast for us to fully comprehend.