October 07, 2011

On the Internet and Off: Chaos and Guillotines

A couple of days ago, when I posted on YouTube a very nice tribute to Steve Jobs that I had seen, I used my standard settings to moderate viewer comments. Since "trolls" and other comment abusers are a not uncommon annoyance, I've found this to be the best technique for maintaining a level of "decorum" that I personally prefer in such venues.

And even though the vast majority of comments were positive, and the "thumbs-up" count exceeded thumbs down by more than two orders of magnitude, I was still taken aback by the viciousness and obscene hatred expressed in a considerable number of queued comments (all of which I blew away into oblivion -- they were especially inappropriate for a posting in the wake of such a death).

Noteworthy were the submissions -- some of considerable length -- that seemed to equate perceived shortcomings by Jobs and Apple to a twisted "he deserved to die" mentality. I'm certainly no Apple fanboy -- I have a variety of gripes with how Apple operates. But certainly such writings are beyond the pale in any civilized sense. Equally disturbing were comment submissions wishing a painful death on Bill Gates from some professed Apple aficionados. And in contrast to claims that "real names" result in higher quality comments, I could discern no differences between anonymous and obviously pseudonymous comments and those using (supposedly or definitely) real names in these respects.

As disturbing as many of these comments were (and are -- comments are still rolling in), these effects are not unprecedented by any means.

In other venues, including Google+ and my inbound email, I've been seeing what appears to be an increasing sense of hardline posturing, even in the face of obvious factual discordances.

Try to discuss the differences between Facebook and Google privacy policies, and comments start to fill with "they're all the same!" proclamations suggesting a range of supposed conspiratorial relationships. Point out specifically where Google handles data in a pro-privacy manner, and responses appear like "well, maybe they're not doing something bad now, but they could in the future!"

This seems akin to an exchange in 1967's film Casino Royale, where a character portrayed by Woody Allen claims that "People called Einstein crazy!" When told that no one ever called Einstein crazy, Woody's character replies, "Well, they would have if he'd carried on like this!"

Another example. There is justifiable criticism of Microsoft's Bing for their continuing direct participation in Chinese government censorship regimes. But does this make Microsoft crazy?

Some observers seem to think so. When Microsoft's free antivirus package recently incorrectly flagged and started deleting Google's Chrome browser as a virus, I was inundated with messages from people convinced that this was a purposeful act by Microsoft to "damage" Chrome's market share.

But even a cursory bit of serious thinking reveals the illogical nature of such an assumption. The risks of getting caught doing something like that would be enormous. It would make no sense from a cost/benefit or any other angle, and would essentially require imputing criminal motives to Microsoft that would be an utterly nonsensical risk for them.

Why are so many people so loudly buying into such ludicrous concepts on the Net?

We need only look to the rising tide of chaos and refusal to compromise off the Net to understand, since the Net is ultimately but a reflection of the world at large.

In a time when it has become de rigueur by some on the right to insanely compare President Obama with Hitler, to call Obama simultaneously a communist, fascist, and socialist, and where the GOP has aligned itself with a Tea Party that indisputably contains racist elements within its ranks, the sense of increasing chaos seems palpable.

Nor are those on the left blameless in this maelstrom. Similar harsh epithets and calls of "traitor" against Obama are not infrequent from that side of the political spectrum, usually in concert with complaints that Obama has not single-handedly brought about desired major changes, despite the fact that a non-dictatorial president's ability to bring about real change is extraordinarily constrained by legal and institutional factors.

Author David Brin (with whom I don't always agree) has very recently and aptly suggested that the forces we see in play today, especially in regard to skewed accumulation of wealth and refusals to apply marginally higher tax rates to the wealthiest members of society, have created an environment strikingly similar to that prior to the French Revolution.

Presumably few of us want to see a return to the widespread use of la guillotine to cull the ruling class. But when you see vast numbers of persons without proper health care (making us the laughingstock of the western world), and increasing crowds of disaffected individuals protesting against the financial criminals who nearly triggered a global depression -- evaded only by the imposition of unpopular bailouts -- it understandably should bring chills to the spines of some observers on high.

In reality of course, not all members of the GOP and Tea Party are racists, just as everyone on the left aren't anarchists. But we know that such persons do exist at both ends of the spectrum, and there is a natural tendency to perceive groups by virtue of their most extreme (and often loudest) members.

An old saying (not fair to the dog lovers among us!) is that "when you lay down with dogs, don't be surprised if you wake up with fleas."

In other words, if we allow those persons whose ultimate goals are dissension rather than reasoned compromise -- and chaos over the common good -- to be the framers of these debates, we are permitting them to characterize us as well as themselves, and in the process allowing them to condemn all of us to their dismal fates.

This is true both on the Internet and in the "real world" -- a distinction that is becoming less meaningful with every passing day as the Net continues to fundamentally pervade more and more aspects of our lives.

Can we harness the Internet as a means to steer the world away from chaos, to use its unparalleled ability to disseminate knowledge and truth to aim us toward the light?

Or will the Net follow toxic footsteps deep into the darkness, perhaps a future where webcams are used primarily to watch figurative bloody heads fall into figurative wicker baskets? -- Or maybe not so figurative at that.

The best of times? The worst of times? Future history awaits our answer.


Posted by Lauren at October 7, 2011 06:28 PM | Permalink
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