Web of Darkness?
Technology has taken over our lives. But has it, yet? Has it not merely transformed our lives to a level that is exciting, strange, and perhaps even dangerous? Inherent in this transformation is there a threat that technology may very well soon take over our lives, if we allow it to. We may be on the path to losing our humanity in this world of technological advancement, if we are not careful. It may be that technology challenges the existing social structures by introducing new rules for social relationships and interaction and by allowing us a route to escape into the inner recesses of ourselves. For is it not the essence of humanity to want and even need to be free, free from constraints on our thoughts and actions.
2. THE INTERNET
I will restrict myself to the technology of the Internet for the purposes of this paper. The Internet has transformed the way we interact with other people and the way we portray ourselves and the way we express and allow ourselves to indulge our innermost feelings and needs. At this point I believe a little of what exactly the Internet is, merits discussion. The Internet is a network of networks that allows you to transfer information to other network users and hence to the people and audience that you intend as recipients. It also allows us to locate and search for any combination of ideas by simply tapping into an unimaginable bank of knowledge. The potential of the Internet to be anything thing that we want it to be is precisely what makes the Internet an extraordinary technology which will have a major impact on society. 1
3. A MESSAGE OF HOPE OR DESPAIR 2
Notwithstanding the pervasive influence of technology on our lives, it is still possible to see technology as having a positive influence on our lives. I concede this point with trepidation as the future is as yet unfolding before us. However we can all agree that life is at times more streamlined, simple and often efficient because of technology. It is only when we forget that it is us who should be controlling technology and not technology that should be controlling us that we should worry. As Donald Norman would say " So, yes, I am delivering a message of warning, but one accompanied by hope, not despair". 3 The hope is in our ability to use technology in a way that does not subjugate our very humanity.
An interesting analogy of the Internet as having the potential to make us lose our inhibitions can be made. Is the Internet a jungle, replete with uncharted territory and lack of social, political and economic constraints? The further that one goes into the abyss of the Internet the less restrained one is by norms and conventions. As Joseph Conrad in his acclaimed novel, Heart of Darkness, suggests, the further you go into the jungle the less constrained and more uninhibited we become. 4 The jungle is an abyss - a place of darkness and untold secrets; the deeper we sink into the abyss the more our unconscious allows us to be. The jungle is also a place of acceptance. Due to the lack of standards of what is acceptable behavior we all have the potential to indulge in the deeper, darker inner recesses of our mind.
Likewise the Internet allows us to indulge in conduct that we would ordinarily not feel comfortable in. We traverse and /or indulge and express our innermost unconscious desires. The Internet allows us to traverse this journey under the cloak of anonymity, if we so choose. Have we lost our selves and has the Internet facilitated us in this process?
Is the jungle really a place of acceptance though? While it is a place that allows us to express what is within us, it is by no means a place of blanket acceptance. As the catchy chorus of the soundtrack in the LION KING goes, "in the jungle the mighty jungle the lion roars today." 5 In the jungle the lion maintains some semblance of order. Man and animal is only free to be as banal or as vicious or as depraved as the lion allows him to be, in the jungle. It is the survival of the fittest within a larger context of order. By analogy, on the Internet, there is and to an extent cannot be a blanket acceptance of conduct that is outright vicious and depraved. Someone or something has to maintain order.
In the portals and depth of the Internet is there anyone who can regulate our thoughts and conduct, or should there be anyone? I am suggesting that maybe it should be us, ourselves. For the purposes of this paper, I will canvass issues of conduct presently indulged on in the Internet, conduct that society and communities may very well consider immoral and even downright depraved and yet other conduct that allows us to shut off human contact and yet others that facilitate communication between people who otherwise wouldn't meet.
To paraphrase Donald Norman's opinion of the Internet " Forget, for the moment, your personal qualms about these technologies. Forget the ethical issues, forget morality. Even forget the feasibility. Instead concentrate upon the experience itself, the sense of fun that you can get by imagining them briefly. The question I want to ask is, would they really be that exciting and interesting. My experiences have been are disappointing. Most real applications I have dealt with have not lived up to their potential, even allowing for the primitive capabilities of today's technology. It seems more fun to read about the new technologies than to use them. Why? Because imagination is more agile than reality. Imagination doesn't have all the burps and glitches, delays and clumsiness of reality. And my imagination is in full three dimensional sound and vision, with full color, with no grain or noise. My mind has no physical limits. In my mind I make no errors, have no doubts or confusions, and always find exactly what I want. Not so with real technology. 6 I see this as a salvation for mankind, if only we realize that our Internet experiences are transient and not a substitute for reality or life itself.
My message of hope however is still constant, because of my faith in the ability of human beings to stop, think and rationalize for themselves to consider what is good for them. This is based on my belief that people are all basically good and have a well intuitive sense of what is right and that we too like the king of the jungle have a well intuitive sense of survival. Yes, we digress on the road, but we always survive.
4. VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES
Creators of technology have realized and are not unaware that human beings crave company and a sense of community. The Internet has responded to this need. The Virtual Community scenario has been created partly through technology and partly through mankind's creative use of it. What we have is a strange sort of personal interaction, an interaction within the confines of "the safe harbor of machine - mediated interaction, perhaps where we can appear to others in forms different from out normal selves?" 7 This raises a new question which may have no answer. Do we really prefer this sort of interaction? Is it for companionship or fantasy or just plain bizarre?
What or Who Forms These Communities and Why.
We do. Our reason for forming these communities varies. There are many reasons, some purely for social interchange, others for companionship, others to alleviate loneliness and yet others simply to access information. An interesting point of caution to note, would be that virtual communities cannot and do not attempt to substitute our needs for love and warmth. It has been said that "we live in bodies, which need to be kept fed, warm and clean by flows of real materials and energy; and we need comradeship and love from other real people. No virtual community can substitute these primary needs; and a society which discarded them in the pursuit of electronic happiness would soon become so dysfunctional that the system itself could easily become subject to corruption and sabotage from within". 8 The latter concern of corruption from within will be elaborated in due course from the perspective of anonymity and artificial personae. My point is here is a simple one, virtual communities cannot substitute for direct human contact. 9
All the virtual communities that technologies can create or even conceive of in the future may assuage our need for social interaction but will not necessarily replace it. That we recognize this is evident from the fact that we do emerge from our technological havens and go to work, go shopping, ride a bus, catch the "T", go to school and thus engage in human interaction and communication. However it must be noted that people do cut themselves off from the physical world. It has been said "as we increase our knowledge and capacity to communicate around the world, we're cutting off our neighbors in a physical sense". 10 This is a sad reflection of our value system. That we need to or that we find solace in virtual reality social contexts and that the Internet "offers the capacity to shut people off "is to me very sad. 11 In addition "in a cyberspace community you can shut people of at the click of a mouse and go elsewhere". 12 This indicates a lack of commitment to the social intercourse and the people of the Internet as well.
It may be that the virtual community social structure is simply a new challenge/variation to existing social structures. Can it be possible that new rules for social structures have emerged? 13 But can new rules ever justify us "clicking" off at our whim when we find conversation unstimulating and plain boring? Maybe "conversations" on the Internet can be perceived as "apparently bloodless technological ritual". 14
It would be an interesting point to ascertain whether we are any more alone in a virtual reality context or not. Has the Internet really affected our solitude? Are we any less lonely? The gratification we get from our "communications" may and at times make us feel as though we are immersed in a social culture. But the reality is far from virtual. We are lonely participants sitting in isolation from one another and more often than not we are also on different ends of the earth. Yet, against this proposition, have we not asserted ourselves and formed relationships of love, communication, intellectual discourse, "long" distance friendships and support groups.
"Any difficulty is harder to bear in isolation. There is nothing to measure against. Typing out my journal entries in the computer and over the phone lines, I found fellowship and comfort in this unlikely medium." 15 This is an excerpt from Jay's computer communication to people from the WELL.1, (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) Parenting conference, an online communication forum. Jay's little girl had a white plastic tube inserted into her throat to facilitate her breathing to keep her alive. He would communicate with his online friends when alone in the dark, and in pain while watching his little girl. Jay aptly characterizes this mode of communication as warm, therapeutic and supportive. In his words that " Before this time my computer screen had never been a place to go for solace. Far from it. But there it was. Those nights sitting up late with my daughter, I'd go to my computer, dial up the WELL, and ramble. I didn't know anyone I as "talking" to. I had never laid eyes on them. At 3.00 a.m. my "real" friend were asleep, so I turned to this foreign, invisible community for support. The WELL was always awake." 16 That Jay found solace and comfort from this virtual communication/ interaction warms my heart.
An interesting phenomenon to note is that notwithstanding finding support, people to communicate with and people with common interests, some online forum participants have taken the initiative to meet. The WELL again is an example. The participants organized an annual summer picnic and an annual Pickle Family Circus benefit and potluck. There they met and saw not just the personality they had come to know but the person. This does lead me to that propose that notwithstanding computer or technology mediated contact we still need physical human contact and interaction. These needs may be so intertwined in us that we invariably seek it out.
We may have lost our contact with people to such an extent that we now have to first seek out people from the cyber world and then establish friendships. This may perhaps be a better way to make friends as we may be accepting people for what they say and accept all people for their ideas and thoughts, regardless of age, sex, and disability. " Because we cannot see one another in cyberspace, gender, age national origin, physical appearance is not apparent unless a person wants to make such a characteristic public. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always want to be treated - as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not talking)." 17
5. A SUBJUGATION OF REALITY
There may be a deeper problem for us having forsaken our traditional environment and communities and escaped in the world of cyberspace for interaction. We seem to find it easier to simply sit at our desks or in whatever comfort zone we find appealing and interact with the immediate community and the larger community which is beyond our physical geographic boundary. Why are we not investing time in meeting our community members, our friends at school, our neighbors our acquaintances and our friends and families? Have we found them to be inaccessible, boring, too demanding or just plain uninteresting? The virtual reality may have provided us with an avenue of unimaginable stimulation and interest and support that we choose this mode of communication, interaction and support and friendship. It may be that we cannot say that the "Internet mirrors- to us the human condition in all its boredom and banality" 18
5.1 Is it Really a True Relationship
It is always important to consider whether we not being duped, at times, by words that are just words that have been artfully expressed and with such wit and wisdom that we end up believing people really mean what they say and that they are who they are. "Will we become less social, preferring the safe harbor of machine-mediated interaction, perhaps where we can appear to others in forms different from our normal selves?" 19 I want to share a feeling that we indulge in these conducts because possibly it is more real to us than the real thing.
5.1.1 Masking our True Identity
Admittedly so much of computer mediated interaction is not under a cloak of mystery. However many other communication networks on the Internet facilitate the idea of anonymity. Chat lines are a prime example. We can be anyone we want to be and have free reign on thoughts and comments. We can use our words and writing to reflect anything and "highly talented writers can project an image they wish, as long as there is no danger that they will ever meet their correspondent." 20 We can gender switch and race switch and personality switch. To be honest, schizophrenia is not an uncanny description of the potential we will have to change our personalities and identities at will.
5.1.2 True to Ourselves
On a note of realism I do see that the Internet communication has allowed us to project ourselves as we are and/or as we really perceive ourselves to be. We can be seen to be true to our inner selves and technology is helping us. It is only when we misuse it and deceive and coerce others and sometimes deceive ourselves that we should be wary of this technology. In a sense we are like children at play and everything can be an adventure. But we have to be accountable to society and ourselves. Or else the very fabric of trust that holds society together can and will fall apart.
On a note of caution I quote William Mitchell "It is easier to wear masks, but tough to build trust-a key component in creating a working physical community" 21 We are all so happy expressing ourselves by furiously typing in our thoughts and sometimes not our thoughts but just about anything that comes to mind and sometimes things or impressions that we know are false and misleading that we create for ourselves a new sort of relationship. A relationship that is based not on trust but on a false sense of acceptance of the person behind the words. Sometimes we do trust our friends, as the case of Jay above illustrates, but sometimes we have not even contemplated whether we should or actually do trust our new cyber communicators.
6. SOMETHING MORE SINISTER THAN A LACK OF TRUST
Do we not, by masking our true identity, indulge in otherwise impermissible conduct? Our fantasies may suck us into a world of delusion, pain and even depravity. And the Internet may have facilitated new and different forms of societal, behavioral and even criminal conduct. It may also be that this is conduct that we feel comfortable indulging in because we are traversing and/or expressing our innermost desires and there is a possibility that we may get away with these types of conduct.
Do peoples' darker sides come out and should we be concerned about the kind of excesses humanity is indulging in? I think so. I will analyze / highlight a few of the current behavioral practices going on the Internet.
6.1 Electronic Stalking
I believe that the Internet has given latent stalkers the courage to come out of the closet and stalk. It is easier to track potential victims and to engage in online harassment and or e-mail harassment. While the risk of being caught out exists stalkers find the allure of anonymity so great and invincible that they continue to stalk. So, it is not only the mentally disturbed that stalk but also people who have confused romantic ideals with impermissible harassment.
6.2 Sexual Indecency
The abundance of sex online websites leads me to the question of whether this is simply a cerebral indulgence for most people and a softer version of adultery for people in monogamous relationships. A note of caution is required here. Others may interpret other people's concept of what is visceral, deranged and unacceptable as free speech and association. I am however concerned that the net is becoming a cesspool of immorality and cyber porn and child pornography and that this is a grave cause for concern. It is far too easy to indulge in and very little social control seems to exist.
6.3 Racist, Sexist and just plain "unacceptable" Hate Speech
Do we now indulge through the security of the Internet in more racist, sexist and hate speech? Are there no constraints on what we say or do we deceive ourselves into thinking that there are no constraints because we are covered with the cloak of anonymity? I am of the opinion that we do not constrain ourselves in speech on the net in the realms of fantasy. Yet, it is conceivable that in areas of religious and political speeches we are constrained by norms of what is acceptable. This is so because in these areas debate does occur on the net with people vehemently opposing views that do not conform to acceptable standards.
Our social, moral, communicative and ethical practices have changed with the advancements in technology. I conclude on a note of sadness, yet still with a message of hope. Sadness, because technology has made it so easy for us too lose ourselves but hope because some of us have found new friends and interests and support over the internet. In addition the message of hope is from the knowledge that we, as human beings, have a well intuitive sense of survival and that we will not allow ourselves to be swallowed alive or lost in the technology of the Internet.
1. H.T. Kung, Introduction Personal Internet and Societal Vision, in The Harvard Conference ON THE Internet & Society vii, (OReilly & Associates Inc. ed., Harvard University Press 1997).
2. Donald A. Norman, Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine 8 (Addison- Wesley Publishing Company 1993). So, yes I am delivering a message of warning, but one accompanied by hope not despair.
3. Id. at 8.
4. Joseph conrad. heart of darkness, (Ross C Murfin eds., 2d ed.1996).
5. The Weavers, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, on Album at Carnegie Hall (Vanguard 7301).
6. Norman, supra note 3, at 217
7. Norman, supra note 3 at 203
8. Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome R. Ravetz, Introduction: Reaping The Technological Whirlwind, in Cyberfutures: Culture and politics on the Information Superhighway 1, 11 ( Ziauddin Sardar & Jerome R. Ravetz eds., New York University Press 1996).
9. Neil L. Rudenstine, Special Address, in The Harvard Conference on the internet and society 3, 7 (OReilly & Associates Inc. ed., Harvard University Press 1997) No one should believe that electronic community can be - or - should be - a substitute for direct human contact.
10. Katrina Roberts, Virtuallly Real: Life, Politics, and the Net, in The harvard confernce on the Internet and Society 272, 273 (OReilly & Associates Inc. ed. , Harvard University Press 1997).
11. Charles Firestone, Life and Politics on the Net, in The harvard confernce on the Internet and Society 274, 275 (OReilly and Associates Inc. ed., Harvard University Press 1997).
12. Ziauddin Sardar, alt.civilizations.faq Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West, in Cyberfutures: Culture and politics on the information superhighway, 14, 29 (Ziaddun Sardar & Jerome R. Ravetz eds., New York University Press 1996).
13. Bosah Ebo, Internet or Outernet? , in Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? : Race, class, and Gender on the Internet, 1 (Bosah Ebo ed. , 1998)
14. Howard Rheingold , The Virtual Community: homesteading on the electronic frontier 1 (1993).
15. Howard rheingold , The Virtual Community : homesteading on the electronic frontier 20 (1993).
16. Id. at 20.
17. Id. at 26.
18. Cristina Tavella Hall, Sex on Line: Is this Adultery, 20 Hastings Comm/Ent L.J. 201 (1997). See FN4.
19. Norman, supra note 3, at 203.
20. Norman, supra note 3, 206.
21. Katrina Roberts, Virtually Real : Life, Politics, and the Net, in The Harvard Conference on The Internet & Society 272, 273 (OReilly & Associates Inc. ed. , Harvard University Press 1997)