As more people use their screens to engage in written conversations, what’s our ethical obligation to turn away from the content of those screens when they are in public view?
Last year I resolved to bring more mindfulness to my daily life.
One of the ways I implement that is by staying off of my iPhone while I’m in line at Whole Foods. It may seem like a small thing, but the line at the Whole Foods in Union Square is an easy place to get distracted. Instead of giving in to that distraction, I use the time to notice and observe what’s going on around me.
I practice presence.
One of the effects of bringing this presence practice to this particular setting is that often my eyes get drawn to other people’s screens.
I’ve noticed, for example, that most people spend their waiting time scrolling through Facebook or Instagram.
Tonight I found myself drawn to a text message exchange that I spotted over the shoulder of the woman in front of me.
I wasn’t trying to invade her privacy; I wasn’t straining to look over her shoulder.
It was simply that the angle of her phone and her height and my height and the size of the text on her phone created a physical dynamic in which I could read her conversation.
Hey. This is what happens when you’re 5-foot-10 and people around you are shorter.
The content of her conversation was innocuous. I realize that this is not dispositive. Expectations of privacy do not vary based on the content of the conversation.
And, I can’t stop thinking about my ethical obligations in this situation.
Do I have an obligation to actively turn away in order to avoid seeing her screen conversation that was right there in front of me?
Has our social contract evolved to encompass proper etiquette in this environment?
In some ways this was like when you overhear a private conversation while in the ladies room.
I think our social mores are firmly established with respect to this type of situation: if you decide to have a conversation in a place open to the general public (the ladies room, on public transportation, the nail salon or spa) you speak at your own risk.
It’s not on me to leave the space to avoid hearing you. If you don’t want a random stranger to overhear your conversation then don’t have the conversation in public.
That is different from eavesdropping, in which the listener is making an attempt to listen to a private conversation being held in a private place.
But where does this situation fall?
What’s the visual equivalent of eavesdropping? Eaveslooking?
(Is that even a word? Perhaps now it is.)
So was I eaveslooking? After all, her text messaging was not intended for my eyes.
On the other hand, to borrow a term from the law with respect to the 4th Amendment’s protection against search and seizes, we have no expectation of privacy for what’s in “plain sight” of others when we are using our devices in public.
Certain screen protectors can prevent your screen from being seen by the person seated next to you on a plane or standing behind you in line on Whole Foods. If you don’t choose to use those protections, then that’s on you.
The very fact that I’m pondering the ethics of this tells me that there is a part of me that wonders whether I was in the wrong by not turning away from her text messages.
Should my practice of presence include turning away from the screen that is in my line of sight?
Do our social mores dictate that I turn away?
What are the ethics and etiquette around this?
What do you think?