Sunday, October 04, 2015

The soul in the cellphone

In this post I will do two things: discuss student rights, then segue from that topic to dualism. Seems like an odd couple, but I think they're analogous.

i) Suppose a high school has a policy prohibiting students from inciting other students to break the law. The rationale is that a school does not exist to host a student's subversive political agenda. It is not a recruitment center for his subversive cause. Indeed, the school would be complicit if it knowingly supplied a platform for that activity. 

ii) Consider an illustration. In the US, the legal drinking age is 21. In Germany, by contrast, the drinking age is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for hard alcohol. In addition, you can enlist in the US military at age 18 (without parental consent), or 17 (with parental consent). Seems absurd to say you're old enough to fight and die for your country, but not old enough to drink beer. 

Because some students think that's unreasonable, they share tips with other like-minded students on how to skirt the legal restrictions. Suppose that's grounds for suspension–or expulsion for repeat offenses. 

iii) Let's say that up to a point, it's reasonable for schools to have that policy. But are there limits?

Suppose two students visit another student at home. In his bedroom they mention tactics to circumvent the drinking age. Suppose the school administration finds out about this conversation through the grapevine. Is that grounds for suspension?

I suspect most of us would say no. What students tell classmates off-campus is not something for school administration to monitor or penalize. Unless they are plotting a Columbine-style massacre, school administrators should mind their own business.

iii) And the same principle would apply when it comes to social networking, viz. Facebook, email, texting. If the "incitement" takes place off-campus, then school administration has no right to butt in. That falls outside the jurisdiction of the school. Students have a life outside school. 

iv) But suppose this takes place on school premises. Is that grounds for disciplinary action? 

Well, suppose it takes place after hours. Suppose some student frequent the athletic fields on weekends, or during summer break. Suppose that while they happen to be on school property, they share tips about how to circumvent the drinking age. Should that be punishable?

Seems like an arbitrary technicality to me. Assuming the policy is reasonable at all, the logical context is when school is in session. The mere fact that some students are physically on site, even though school is not in session, seems to make the policy irrelevant in that setting.  

If that's correct, then where this takes place is not a sufficient condition, although it may be a necessary condition. It also depends on when it takes place. 

v) There's also the question of how we define "incitement." When school is in session, suppose, in the cafeteria or locker room, in casual conversation, a student gives advice on how to get around drinking age restrictions. Does that violate school policy?

I guess that's a matter of interpretation. It's not like he's circulating a student petitions. It's just a spontaneous, informal exchange of views between a few classmates. They talk about whatever is on their minds. Talk about whatever they feel like. 

Teachers and administrators aren't a branch of law enforcement. It's not their duty to police what students talk about. 

vi) But there's another complication. In the age of smartphones, what students do at home doesn't stay at home. They take Facebook, texting, and email wherever they go. The record of those transactions in contained in their smartphone. Does it violate school policy when they bring that information to school? 

One question is whether that message becomes a part of school the moment they step on campus, but ceases to be a part of school the moment they leave campus. That seems to be ad hoc. 

vii) Another objection might be that this is a record of what was said off-campus. Suppose, though, between classes, one student texts another regarding how to circumvent the drinking age. Is that a violation of school policy?

That raises some intriguing philosophical issues. Where is the message? In one respect, the message is in the smartphone. But does that mean the message is now at school?

On one interpretation, perhaps. The information is in the phone, which is in a backpack, which is in a locker, which is in a school building, which is on school grounds, which is in a city, which is in a state, which is in a country, which is on the planet, which is in the universe. But is that the best way to frame the issue?

To approach it from another angle, does the information in the phone become part of the school when the phone is on school grounds? Seems like an odd claim.

For one thing, the information is in the phone, not where the phone is–apart from the phone. The information doesn't remain on-campus when the phone is off-campus. 

Yes, there's a roundabout sense in which the information is wherever the phone is, but that's separable from the locale. The information is not in any particular place, but in the phone–which could be anywhere. 

The data is located in the phone, and the phone may be located at school, but the phone is portable in a way the school is not. The data goes with the phone, not the school. The relation of the information to the external location is incidental and adventitious. 

viii) But suppose we treat the school like national airspace, where you require overflight rights. You need permission to pass through another nation's airspace. Is the information part of the school in that sense?

But that analogy breaks down. For instance, I believe it's illegal to intercept electronic communications like that without a warrant. The school is not a party to that.

Rather, that's a contractual arrangement between customer and the company. In a sense the wireless company has custody of that airspace. 

The mobile network is like a closed system. Even if the electronic communication intersects with school property, that's a legally self-contained transaction with privacy rights. Although the information sharing may take place at school, it is not a part of school. 

ix) Finally, asking where the message is in relation to the world is akin to asking where the soul is in relation to the body. The smartphone is the access point for information storage, retrieval, and transmission.

Likewise, the body is the access point for the soul to interface with the world. It's not that the soul is contained in the body, any more than the smartphone data is contained in the school. 

1 comment:

  1. The name of the blogpost sounds like a possible name for a Bones episode. Often an episode name is "The [blank] in the [blank]."