What is the internet anyway? Good or evil? Behind that question is the idea that a medium is either wholeheartedly good and pro-utopian, or it’s destroying everything around us. I came across the latest example of this all or none approach at Kathryn Cramer’s blog where she writes that,
A few years ago, I viewed the Internet as a vehicle for spreading compassion, spreading empathy, allowing the possibility that someone like me from her dining room could spontaneously arrive at ways to help individual people on the other side of the world
Lately, I have come to view the Internet as a vehicle for rapid re-socialization, much of it for the worse. I see a sudden Internet-induced lack of empathy, compassion, and even basic sympathy, in what I regard as a population of normal (by which I mean not sociopathic) people. I see mean-girl behavior in adult women that would get them sent to the Vice Principal’s office under no-bullying policies if they were sixth grade girls at my son’s school; I see violent ideation expressed publicly; I see demonization (sometimes literally); and I see this passing by without opposition from the communities within which these are expressed.
I find this very worrisome. None of the theories we have about how people behave in large numbers can adequately account for behavior on the Internet because the Internet is too new. A few years ago, I thought of the Internet as a potential solution to many things, and as a tool for spreading compassion across international and cultural boundaries. Now I begin to see it as the opposite: a tool used by others for the mass elimination of empathy, and as a problem rather than a solution.
Now this kind of “I thought the internet was good, but now I realize it’s a bad and scary place that makes people behave badly“, isn’t an uncommon approach. We’ve all seen things on the internet that make us think that maybe Vincent Cerf should have focused on designing birdhouses instead. Birdhouses don’t hurt anyone, except birds with vision problems.
But the internet is still a tool. It is a human tool, and a powerful one. Powerful tools allow people to do greater good and greater evil, which is as close as I’ll go to that inescapable Spider-Man quote. The internet is not one thing and not another, it is a tool and how people use it, is only a matter of scaling up their usual behavior by the ratio of the power they now have.
Cramer uses the term re-socialization to describe what is going on, on the internet, even comparing it to what went on in Nazi Germany. I would question the use of the term in both examples, but in the case of the internet, people are not adapting, so much as they’re using. Moving to Pakistan requires re-socialization. Using the internet is a matter of learning to use a particular tool. The internet we deal with on a daily basis is filled with people very much like us. It’s not a new environment. It’s our environment viewed through the filter of a digital toolset.
Nothing that people do on the internet is new, whether it’s helping people around the world or hurting people around the world. The internet has not changed human nature, only give it more range. The internet reflects the good and bad qualities of human nature. It projects as much empathy as antipathy. There is no single state for the internet, because there is no single state for us.
Sure morality mobs, Anonymous, sexting, twitter, terrorist instruction videos can be pretty horrifying. And the next generation always seems to have no more morals or sense of right and wrong. But hasn’t it always been that way? People have always been freaked out by the next generation and their hangouts and manners and attitudes. Everyone’s Greatest Generations was always someone else’s bunch of no good punks who need to get a good whuppin from their parents.
So like every tool humans ever invented, the internet is a bunch of problems and solutions wrapped in one. Think about cars, planes, computers, fire, dynamite, sharp blades, television and the printing press. It’s always been this way. It always will be this way. And if we ever get around to nanotech, FTL, genetically engineering humans and holodecks, they’ll be that way too. That’s always been a basic theme in Science Fiction, but Science Fiction cliches are a lot easier to deal with, until it actually happens, and the world gets very strange, and people begin putting the technology to all sorts of unexpected uses, that we really should have expected if we had been paying more attention to human nature.