Elf on the Shelf

Perhaps it’s indicative of the social isolation of law school, but I hadn’t been familiar with the Elf on the Shelf phenomena until quite recently. I’d heard the term in passing, sure, but I never bothered to Google it to find out what all the fuss was about. But recently I came across two articles (here and here) that criticized the Elf on the Shelf as acclimating our society’s youth to “surveillance culture” and imbuing them with a passive acceptance of established power structures. This provoked quite a few thoughts, and since it’s almost Christmas (for those of us who celebrate it) I thought I’d delve into the topic.

The Elf

For those who (like me) have no small children and are not themselves small children, Elf on the Shelf is a picture book that tells the story of how Santa Claus employs teams of elves to hide in peoples’ homes so he can know which children are naughty and nice. The book comes with a plush doll, the “elf on the shelf,” which parents are encouraged to put on a shelf in their child’s bedroom to remind them that Santa is watching. There are a couple other nuances, (you aren’t allowed to touch the elf; you’re supposed to name it; you’re encouraged to tell it your Christmas wishes), but the basic premise is to capitalize on the Santa story to encourage children to be on good behavior.

Despite a fairly close parallel to my understanding of Santa, (“he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake”), the Elf on the Shelf has drawn quite a bit of criticism, with journalists and academics alike decrying it as teaching kids “it’s OK for other people to spy on you” and “you’re not entitled to privacy.” Their basic argument is that by teaching children at a young age that surveillance leads to gifts, we are indoctrinating them to accept “surveillance culture” as normal or good. And while my initial reaction was one of pure amusement, apparently this idea is being taken at least somewhat seriously. Despite arguably being just another extension of the “peanut-free mom” complex, this is probably indicative of a mounting public backlash against the spread of data tracking generally.

So what is “surveillance culture?” It’s hard to be sure. It seems to be a catchall phrase for the broad distrust of data tracking, both online and in the real world. If I were to paraphrase, I think it represents a fear that in the near future, having “someone watch you” will simply be expected. And while the notion that the “someone” is an actual person is hopelessly quaint, the trend line certainly points towards almost all aspects of our lives being monitored to some degree. And apparently the Elf on the Shelf is ensuring that today’s youth grow up as unthinking sheeple, blindly accepting their omnipresent overlords.

You Better Watch Out

To start, I’d question the premise. The idea that we are being watched by something vaguely supernatural didn’t originate with Elf on the Shelf, and I should hardly think its not-so-novel spin warrants this much attention. As I alluded to above, Elf on the Shelf just borrows the popular Santa story, which has always said that children were being watched for bad behavior. I doubt having the actual plush elf makes any difference to the children, who have been told that “Santa is watching” for generations (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” dates back to 1934). And outside of the Santa story, most religions teach some degree of divine surveillance, (what famed atheist Christopher Hitchens referred to as a “celestial North Korea”), and we do not bemoan the negative impact these ideas have on children. And while I’m sure there are plenty of arguments that distinguish surveillance in the context of religious beliefs, I doubt these nuances would be appreciated by Elf on the Shelf’s target audience.

After all, these are children we are talking about; we don’t let them use public bathrooms alone. We don’t let them dress themselves, feed themselves, and we certainly don’t afford them same level of personal privacy an adult or teenager would expect. If we really are indoctrinating children with the Elf on the Shelf story, what else are we indoctrinating them for, and when did we start?

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

So while I find the claims of indoctrination dubious, the underlying distrust of “surveillance culture” is not without support. Indeed, the “Internet of Things” is the buzzword for the increasing interconnectivity of our household objects, all designed to improve the user experience by collecting more and more data. The quintessential example is the refrigerator that knows when you’re out of milk and orders a refill, but in practice this can be anything from light switches that track how long you keep your lights on to thermostats that adjust your home’s temperature based on whether people are currently in it. Responses to these technologies range from “cool” to “creepy,” as with most technological advances, but the fact that data collection is soon to be everywhere is undeniable.

You might notice I often use “data collection” in place of “surveillance.” This is because I find that the words used in these discussions can have a serious impact on how people respond, and “surveillance” is an emotionally charged word. For example, I think saying “Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good” would garner a much more positive response than “Santa’s elf is watching you and reporting on your behavior.” Yet, are these really very different? “Watching” invokes notions of voyeurism that are inherently more creepy than simply “knowing,” even if the end result is the same. Or perhaps the distrust of the later is that surveillance is inherently over-inclusive. The elf isn’t just watching bad or good behavior: it’s watching everything. This is only implied with Santa “knowing”; with Elf on the Shelf, it’s explicit.

Making a List

So what exactly are the problems with “surveillance culture?” This would be my list:

  1. Harmful uses of surveillance data: In my opinion, this is where most people’s concerns arise. In Santa terms, this would be Santa selling the information about what the children want for Christmas to advertisers, who then market to the children.
  2. Changes in behavior because of surveillance. An example would be children intentionally changing their behavior (acting good) because they know Santa is watching.
  3. Unwarranted data collection. This could include data collection by bad actors (the Grinch watching the Whos down in Whoville), or it could be data collection completely unrelated to an otherwise authorized purpose (Santa using his surveillance techniques to snoop on our private lives).

Checking It Twice

Quickly looking over my (admittedly brief) list, I think we can dismiss numbers 1 and 3 as issues better addressed through other means. For number 1, harmful uses of surveillance data should be regulated at the use point, rather than the surveillance point. We don’t want to say Santa can’t keep tabs on the good boys and girls (meaning no presents!) simply because he might use that data for other less desirable purposes. We should simply say he can’t do those other things we decide are undesirable. Whereas for number 3, we already have laws in place that prevent eavesdropping and other surreptitious data collection, and these are problematic regardless of whether “surveillance culture” becomes a social norm. And while there may be problems with the layperson knowing or understanding what data is collected and why (little Cindy Lou Who could be easily duped by the Grinch), this problem can be easily remedied through transparency and public interest group oversight.

The problem that I think raises the most valid concerns is the second: that people fundamentally alter their behavior when they know they are being watched. I have numerous thoughts on this, many of which are conflicting. The first, and possibly the most important, is that people will change their behavior in such a way that their actions are perceived as better by society. So, for instance, research shows that people who know they are being watched give more to charity, are more sharing, litter less, etc. And while this might seem all good, it also creates an environment that stifles dissent, dissuades creativity, and represses marginalized social classes. Conformity with social norms reinforces both the good norms and the bad ones, and perpetual surveillance has the potential to fundamentally hinder our ability to progress socially.

Yet having said that, I actually don’t think the “surveillance” at issue is of the kind that it will really cause people to change behavior. The studies that look at human behavioral alterations in response to surveillance used actual human surveillance. The people who changed their behavior believed that other people were watching them, whereas modern surveillance is almost entirely done by computers. I don’t think people care nearly as much about what a computer sees. Modern life already entails a massive amount of computerized surveillance, and it has resulted in little change in our behavior (except perhaps revealing traits that we previously couldn’t express). I don’t think the increasing surveillance by computers is worrisome, because people don’t think of it as “surveillance,” they think of it as “data collection.”

For Goodness Sake

There are other protections I foresee as well: the sheer quantity of data creating an obscuring effect; the fact that most of our lives are incredibly uninteresting and not worth watching anyways; but I think the fundamental point is that technology has always been a trade-off between the data we provide and the benefits we get, and that trend line seems to be on a constant upward trajectory. So if the younger generations are willing to provide more data in exchange for greater benefits, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Is a car tracking driving behavior and providing benefits to the safest drivers really any different from Santa giving presents to the good boys and girls? I don’t want to seem like I am trivializing what are very real concerns over the ever-increasing data collection in our society, but my point is that the way to approach them is not by simply restricting data collection generally. Rather, we should acknowledge surveillance’s (data collection’s) benefits, and regulate where we see the harms arise.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Elf on the Shelf is really a conspiracy by the NSA to indoctrinate our youth. Or maybe it’s a prescient foreshadowing of the impending doom of privacy. Or maybe it’s the first step on the path towards the inevitable robot apocalypse!

Or maybe it’s just an Elf . . . on the shelf. Happy Holidays!


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