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16 August 2011

Loving the Internet Hate Machine

Contra this op-ed piece in the New York Times: Technology Provides an Alternative to Love. Read that, then get back to me. Now back to that. Now back to me. Okay, one more thing, said by me on Facebook:
Interesting, but that guy's writing style ground on my nerves. The message is cloyingly earnest but it doesn't stick to a single point. He starts off with tech-culture specifically but shifts to consumer-culture in general and then offers his anecdote on birdwatching (which, how the hell does birdwatching do anything for conservation except as a preliminary step?) and offers a meek "well, try it sometime" conclusion. Even that title annoys me. Clearly the thesis is that the erotic/consumerist nature of technology is WORSE than love; why didn't they title it "Technology Prevents Us From Loving Things"? THAT'S a killer title.
That was my first conclusion: namely, that the article itself was all over the map and fairly poor-quality overall. Then I started thinking about the attempted message, and came to this second conclusion:

The Internet makes it easy to "like" things, but even easier to hate things.

The reason for these two things is the same. Fundamentally, the Internet provides a mediated experience to the user/consumer. Though we know, at some level, that there are real people behind the Facebook profiles, Twitter @usernames, and forum accounts—well, maybe, maybe not—the point is that interacting online is not at all the same as interacting in real life. Maybe it's a cognitive bias, but we can very easily do and say bad things on the Internet because there's no immediate recourse. And, especially, no immediate connection.

That's what the message should have been. The Internet, for all the wonders it provides in terms of global connectivity, screens out emotional connection. There's an emotional inertia that stops deep feelings at the monitor screen, the webcam, the microphone, the Ethernet jack, the wireless antenna.

It works the same way with any medium with a delay; even easier with one-way communications. Think of all the batshit stuff that comes out of the right-wing radio and television. Most of those pundits and politicians probably wouldn't say half or even 10% of what they say, if they were face-to-face with their intended targets. It doesn't mean they wouldn't still think the same thoughts, but they would attempt to save face. It's all about polite company, social mores. The Internet, for better or for worse, demolishes the established mores. It's a paradigm shift. Nothing is safe or sacred when reality becomes mediated.

So technology is what makes it easy to shoot a virtual enemy whereas shooting an actual person is hard. (For the analog version of this, see the Milgram experiments.) It makes it easy to lie, cheat, and slander people, whom you are given great liberty to dislike or even hate, when close proximity and human connections might moderate such feelings. Extremism only thrives in a vacuum—paradoxically, the massive connectivity of the Internet has provided more than enough empty space for hate to metastasize. The same channels that allow a spectacular diffusion of knowledge allow also for a frightening diffusion of responsibility.

Now a third conclusion: This might be a temporary thing.

After all, these are social issues and human beings are social creatures with near-infinite adaptability in this area. We change. And the myriad Internet communities are not without their own emergent social structures. I don't just mean the "Rules of the Internet." Forum etiquette, codified on Usenet of old, was vital in making those networks more than just a morass of spam, warez, trolls, and flame wars. Most multiplayer online games have standards of conduct that discourage "griefing." We may yet grow to acknowledge the humans behind the screens.

That article seems to disagree. It talks about cinematic representations of love as if all such representation was a load of bullshit. I'm no fan of the "pop" Hollywood rom-com love (in fact, I blogged about it a while ago as part of the Parasites class) but to say that all Hollywood love is bullshit kinda denies the power of screen actors to convey emotion. Certainly it's possible to be truly moved by a movie. I wonder if Mr. Franzen would affect the same cultural snobbery about actors of the stage? That, too, is a sort of mediated experience, although the degree of separation is minor. Certainly talented stage actors and scriptwriters can convey love and other complex emotions—or at least a facet of these emotions, no less true because of its partial nature. Why not talented screenwriters or screen actors? Why not talented game writers? Why not talented animators? (Would he honestly say that Pixar has produced some awfully genuine representations of love in their last few movies—Wall-E, UP, and Toy Story 3? These are by no means shallow.)

Hell, Franzen himself writes literature, one of the oldest forms of mediated experience. And we don't say that masterful literature can never convey the feeling of love. This is ultimately a criminal case of selling short. The Internet, and technology, is by no means a perfect medium. It has its flaws. It may even be headed in the wrong direction if we care about minimizing hate and maximizing love. But there is not only one direction.

The Internet is, by and large, a product of the people who use it. We have to act to keep it that way—and change it for the better.

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