It’s a powerful thing, this Internet of ours. The greatest tool for the distribution of knowledge, the administration of compassion, and development of conversation ever created. And the events of this week have shown how it can be a platform for tolerance and understanding, for love and peace.
Particularly touching was the story of a man who, with the assistance of friends and the Internet, was able to confront a tormentor with his misdeeds, bringing the young troll to heel and redeeming a child who surely knew not what he did. An example for the ages of gentleness and cooler minds prevailing over humanity’s companion and adversary, hate.
Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?
The Internet is indeed as described above. It is also the greatest tool for the intensification of hatred, the enablement of isolation, and the annihilation of meaning ever created. To me, the events of this week prove nothing but how man is the worst of all creatures, an intelligent brute, home to a dwindling conscience and infinite entitlement.
The Internet is at the heart of a cultural cancer that will only worsen if we fail to acknowledge the extent to which it has already penetrated.
The 17-year-old son in the story is inflicted with this cancer. And his humanity appears to have entered terminal stage. I don’t share the rosy prognosis of the commentators, who seem to think that years of impunity will be counteracted by one conviction. I feel no compunction in saying that he is a monster, in the proper, non-hysterical sense of the word. A monster made, not born: incubated for years in the fact (no longer a notion) that on the Internet, he is able to do whatever he wants and fear no retribution.
Shall I say thou art a man, that hast all the symptoms of a beast? How shall I know thee to be a man? By thy shape? That affrights me more, when I see a beast in likeness of a man. – Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy
The fundamental advantage of the Internet is instant access to distant resources, bypassing restrictions that have for centuries bound people and nations. This empowerment of the individual works to two ends. First, it protects the individual (partially) against a lack of civilization’s resources (i.e. peace, infrastructure, expertise, population). Second, it removes (again, partially) the obligation to participate in civilization (i.e. laws, rights, social structure). In this way, a person growing up in want and oppression can reach through the ragged curtain and seize the ideals of enlightenment. It is the promise of wisdom and modernity, extended universally. It is one of the best and most important things ever created.
Unfortunately, removing the obligation to participate in civilization removes the reasonable restrictions man has placed upon himself. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” — sometimes for good reason.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde provides a tidy example. A facet of the story not explicitly indicated but perceived by many readers is that there is no Mr. Hyde. Jekyll does not transform into an evil monster; the potion simply grants him anonymity, allowing him to act without consequence, and the rest follows naturally. It’s a retelling of the story of the Ring of Gyges, an affirmation of the age-old wisdom that people are only good when someone is watching.
Who was watching the 17-year-old who terrorized a distant stranger (and who knows how many others) with threats of a maturity and intensity that indicated not just a propensity for but a schooling in hate and cruelty? Harassing someone full-time isn’t something you do on a whim. What about the years this human in name only has been developing a sense of invulnerability and vindictive hatred? Who was watching him then? No one. And in a way, no one could. It’s like the reverse of a Panopticon. The prisoners can see out, but no one can see them.
It was completely by chance that he was caught and his monstrous trajectory gently checked. The most trifling of precautions would have shielded this growing monster from any consequences. That the story was told at all, and the attention it received, testifies to the frequency of outcomes that are the total opposite. Can you really doubt that there are a million more of this particular monster getting away with the same crimes?
Don’t give me counter-examples. When you are told your leg is broken, you don’t plead healthy lungs and a good diet. To recount the Internet’s many great accomplishments, past and potential, is just a distraction. When you perceive evil, to avert your gaze is the same as closing your eyes. To avert your own is to condone; to avert that of others is to become an accessory. We must not take our eyes off of this problem. Whatever good the Internet does, it is also a school and a shelter for hate.
The Mercury Effect
It’s not pessimistic or cynical to say so. It is inescapable. Any great edifice casts a shadow, and sometimes the shadow is even the greater part. I don’t think that’s the case with the Internet, but all the same, it does no good to pretend that what evil you find is an isolated incident. It’s pervasive and it’s systematic, because hate and the Internet fit together like lock and key.
How? The purpose of hate is to justify your actions by dehumanizing the other, and the origin of hate is isolation. On the Internet, you are as isolated as you make yourself, and the other is never human to begin with.
On a more mundane level, think of the way we all self-select our news, gradually building the lens through which we view the world — excluding the unpleasant and magnifying what gratifies us. The result is distortion, innocent perhaps, but distortion still. If the healthiest-minded and most curious among us self-delude like this, how do you think the mentally ill, the bigoted, the wrathful, the ignorant fare? Will a mind corrupted by hate do what we cannot, and seek out an antidote to its own disorder? Is there a precedent for this in all history? Or is history a parade of maniacs and petty tyrants pursuing the narrowest path that corresponds to their own prejudices?
It is true that the resources of the Internet are, for one person, more or less inexhaustible. What does that have to do with the actual habits with which people seek out and internalize knowledge? Is it for lack of books about the slave trade that people opposed the civil rights movement? Do terrorists crash planes into buildings because they didn’t have access to a decent breakdown of Greek philosophy? Absurd. Give someone the world and they will take what they want and leave the rest.
It was ever thus, and it has not changed in the last two decades. It was fortunate that there was a wall between the sick and the means of exacerbating their sickness. There was also a wall between the wise and greater wisdom. They were the same wall.
Now the knowledge of the world is at our fingertips. In this way a child can explore the minds of white supremacists as easily as he can study those of the founding fathers. He can find pictures of tortured animals as easily as he can find coloring books of dinosaurs. He can watch videos of beheadings as easily as he can watch documentaries on birds. He is free to choose, and no one will know his choice.
This leveling of the access of knowledge is not good or bad; it’s simply the case. So how can you expect that its effects will be only good or bad? For every child expanding their horizon, there is one contracting it, using new tools that enable more complete isolation, more foolproof concealment of the traces, more people ready to tell him that no, the Holocaust didn’t happen, yes, the President is a Muslim, no, you don’t need to learn math, yes, you can fake ADHD and sell your dexedrine, and no, you won’t get caught. The Internet levels not only access but credibility, to the uninformed at least, and why shouldn’t a curious and lightly bigoted young person choose to believe that Zionists have been perpetuating the myth of the Holocaust for decades? And why shouldn’t they send death threats? They’re in the right, after all; the guys at StormFront told him so.
No need to use your imagination — just read the news. Fresh atrocities delivered to your doorstep daily. Our 17-year-old troll among them. You think he is an exception, an outlier? You have not been paying very close attention. He is the vanguard.
What use is all this hand-wringing, you ask? I think that it is one of the most important things in the world right now to understand the capacity for destruction latent in the Internet. No technology reaches its full potential, by definition, until it achieves the limit for harm as well as good. Sometimes the harm comes first — for example, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sometimes the good comes first, which few will dispute has been the case with the internet. When and how will the other shoe drop?
I certainly don’t know. But I think that we have been treating the idea lightly, and I think when it does happen, it’s going to be worse than anyone thought. We’ve been basking in the sun for so long and we think the worst that can happen is a sunburn. After all, that’s what we really thought about sunlight, right, just before everyone got diagnosed with skin cancer? And that’s how we have considered the potential damage enabled by the most powerful and pervasive development in generations: a sunburn. Because this too is the kind of damage that takes years to show. Like in a child who thinks that driving a person insane with death threats is a game.
There is no prescription, unfortunately, because hate is a cancer of the mind — and like cancer of the body, there is not one cure because there is not one disease. We are not going to beat hate. Hate appears because of the distance between people and the weakness within people. The advances of the last 30 years have changed what it means to be a person: how we communicate and with whom; how we perceive ourselves and others; how and what we learn. Let’s not be naive about what that means for us, the ways it may be changing us for the worse. But hate is born in ignorance and in isolation, which anyone can fight with vigilance and compassion. Wherever hate happens, we let it happen, in one another. Considering the power we have been given, a power so great that we are only beginning to comprehend it, there is no excuse for that.