A meditation on the Internet and crap
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – My recent foray into the heart of darkness of the Internet news forums has left me with a lingering depression. As I have already described, what passes for news commentary and discussion among the general public is, by and large, nothing more than a cringe-worthy collection of childish name calling and venomous exchanges of insults. What is even more worrisome is the inclination to unbridled bigotry, expressed as racism, ageism, sexism, and pretty much any other “ism” you can name or coin. In an effort to come to terms with the malaise with which this observation has left me, I have done some meditating on the subject.
The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m inclined to dismiss the notion that the cause of the ignorance and low intellectual standards is the Internet itself. Although many social critics spend an inordinate amount of bandwidth bemoaning the negative influence of digital technology and the virtual universe that is nearly universally accessible, I can’t subscribe to their view. The Internet is just too vast, too broad, and too varied to make generalisations about what can be gleaned by exploring it. It is a repository of virtually unlimited knowledge and opinion with intrinsic value that ranges from the sublime to the repugnant, from the enlightened to the astonishingly stupid. All of it is, to all intents and purposes, equally and instantly available and which nuggets the digital prospector chooses to extract is up to the individual.
The Church was actively opposed to the explosion of literacy that was precipitated by my distant ancestor Johannes Gutenberg when he introduced printing to Europe, because it was thought that the average person shouldn’t be exposed to ideas that should be the exclusive purview of the clergy and the aristocracy. Nevertheless, there was only a period of about 150 years between the time Gutenberg printed his first book for a Europe, in which virtually everyone was illiterate and the time of Shakespeare, when even the lowliest trades and craftspeople read for pleasure.
The Internet has had and will continue to have a similarly profound effect on today’s society; moreover in Shakespeare’s time as in the current era, the Pagun Principle applied as universally as it does to the Internet and everything else today. Nevertheless very few of us would choose to go back to the general illiteracy that was the pre-Renaissance world. And ask anyone who bemoans the vacuity of the worldwide web whether they would like to do without email, Wikipedia, Google, or Facebook.
No, the Internet doesn’t make people stupid; it just gives stupid people more exposure. And if you give a large number of truly stupid people a stage, they’re going to fight for the microphone; part of the stupid syndrome is a compulsion to outdo one another. But when you give them that heady combination of a platform and a vast audience, and then you add anonymity, it’s a gnarly mix. You will have literally millions of people whose parents’ last words were, “Hey, guys! Watch this!” competing to see who can be more offensively stupid while still being able to hide their excesses behind plausible deniability.
That plausible deniability is also protective colouration for people to embrace their inner bigot. Deep in many people’s id there seems to be a vicious hate-filled sociopath longing to have both an audience and anonymity. The Internet provides that unique combination. While historically it was possible to publish vicious hate literature anonymously, that required money and professional printers and distributors and booksellers willing to go out on a limb and be complicit in the subterfuge; there had to be some perceived merit or a strong consensus to gather those people and maintain secrecy. We don’t need to imagine how much of a stampede there would be if an inestimably large audience could be found by someone with no money, no supporters and nothing but deep-seated insecurity and hatred (and computer access to the ‘Net from his mother’s basement) with which to work; we can see it every time we log on to Yahoo News.
And that insecurity and hatred of the world doesn’t just seep out, it bursts out like the pus from the pimples those pathetic losers pop on their screens between vicious posts. While the anger is real, the alienation genuine, and the bitterness authentic, I don’t – I can’t – believe that the venomous racism is anything more than a desperate expression of angst and a desire to instill a similar anger in others, a wish to outrage the world that they feel has rejected them.
One has to feel a certain sense of pity for the poor pathetic losers who troll the sites, disrupting and annoying so that they can finally feel as though they matter. As Willy Loman’s wife pointed out, attention must be paid. In their case, they demand it, and they get it.
But it occurs to me, as I think more about the truly ignorant and distasteful trolls who spew their bizarre fantasies on the web, that some of them are just taking advantage of their anonymity to say things that really are in character for them, but that they know are just wrong. They know that saying that the president of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim in the real world would have them treated like gibbering idiots; but they don’t like him and to their minds that’s indistinguishable from any harebrained negative aspersion that pops into their mind. The Internet gives them a forum for expressing that idea – moreover there are enough others like them that they can find people to agree with them. Then the stupid gene kicks in, they
try to outdo each other in the passion with which they express the idea, and in the intricacy of the conspiracy they invent to explain it.
My real concern is the democratic nature of the Internet. While democracy is the only theory and practice of governance I could support, the downside in the virtual world is that it gives the ridiculous as bully a pulpit as it does the sublime. Equal time is given to the thoughtful, perceptive commentary and to the viciously stupid and hopelessly ignorant. Even worse, because the Pagun Principle applies here, the second category of contributions more often than not garners greater support.
But distasteful and depressing as the abysmal standards of discussion and even thinking are in the public forums of the Internet, it occurs to me that it’s time I started to look at the “net the same way I do the world outside my windows. That is, apply the Pagun principal fairly. I know that 90% of the people I will pass on the street, or who will share a subway car, or enter a shopping mall are, to put it reasonably, crap. They will be gullible, venal, narrow-minded, bigoted, unthinking, clueless trend followers. They always have been and that percentage is a universal constant. And yet somehow we all manage to get through the day without going postal. I think that’s because we are discriminating in the real world as to whom we chose to engage. (For example, I know for a fact that the people reading this are emphatically not among the 90%…if they were they would have given up in disgust long ago; in fact they wouldn’t have found their way to this site in the first place). We choose to associate on any real level with those who do not fall into that 90%.
That we are less discriminating when it comes to the digital world can easily be seen when you compare what passes for friendship in the two realms. Most people can’t claim to have more than a dozen real friends. Oh, they might have dozens, even hundreds of acquaintances, people they know and like to spend time with, colleagues, teammates, etc. But real friends? On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to have 500 or more “friends” on Facebook.
So maybe if we accept that we need to ignore the 90% and focus more on that 10% that we eventually run across, then nurture the relationships, return to the websites, discuss on those sites courteously and thoughtfully, we might become inured to the vast wasteland that is the virtual landscape.
That doesn’t make me feel much better somehow.
 The Pagun Principle: 90% of everything is crap