Yesterday morning over breakfast, I read this article. It was probably not the best thing to read pretty much first thing in the morning, but there it was, and it gnawed at me all day. And kept on, even today. It disturbed me. No, I wasn’t surprised by it, hardly anything people do surprises me much anymore, especially if it’s bizarre and doesn’t make any sense. It did, however, deeply, deeply sadden me. Here’s what I wrote in the comments immediately after reading.
This makes me unbelievably sad. Just a couple thoughts. I’ve been on the Internet for 22+ years, a thing that scares me a little if I think about it. From those beginnings, when the Internet really was all text, limited to mostly educational and government users (along with some tech companies and very savvy folks–commercial ISP’s were pretty rare), it was, mostly, a free exchange of ideas. It was “the great equalizer”, where all you were in that space was what you said and how you expressed yourself. It was exciting. It was amazing. I had great optimism for this new medium, not because I could be whoever I wanted to be, but because I could be myself. Disability wasn’t a stigma. Nobody had to care that I was blind, only that I was (umm…OK, stretching a point) intelligent. To see this thing with so much potential for bringing very different kinds of people together being turned into, well, a playground for small minds and intolerance makes me despair anew. I, for one, am sorry. I also always read bios, because I think people are pretty interesting. I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before, never read your tweets, know nothing more than this post from you. I, for one, am looking forward to changing that.
This leads me to a question. Has the promise of the Internet been broken?
Oh, sure. The Internet promised lots of things. It promised instant access to information and entertainment. Eventually, it promised easy and convenient shopping. It delivered on all that. (Of course, it also delivered lots of other things, like spam, but we’re not here to talk about that…or maybe we are, sort of.) The Internet has, indeed, delivered on all of that. I have access to more books than I could read in a lifetime, and better, at the same time as everyone else has them. I can do my own shopping and never have to hear some store employee who’d really rather be doing anything than help me say that “We ain’t got that”, even if it’s sitting right in front of his nose. I can write posts like this and have them read by total strangers, and I can be the total stranger who reads someone else’s opinions as well, and comment on them in real time. I can get news as it happens, unfiltered and immediate, which may not necessarily be a good thing, because I can also get all the rumors, misdirections, unconfirmed speculations, and contradictions from everyone needing to get the story first.
But what I can’t get, what Jamie can’t get, is that thing that was so liberating back when I discovered the Internet for the first time. I can’t think of the word for it. Respect? Equal treatment? It’s one of those things that you know when you see it.
Back when our online existence was limited to 25 lines by 80 characters, give or take, all anyone knew about yu was what you posted, and for everyone, that was text. Your thoughts, your opinions, defined you. It was a “level playing field”, and everyone had the same tools of expression. Oh, sure, there were the guys in their basements who never saw a woman before who would call for “gender check” on IRC and would virtually hit on any woman there, but for the most part, our exchanges were exchanges of ideas. I remember thinking that this was really how it should be. We should be able to get to know each other without prejudice, and, in doing so, maybe we’d all be better for it. That I was blind, or so and so was black, or a woman, or short, or didn’t speak well, or any number of things that would isolate someone, weren’t issues here. This one comic I remember summed it up well with its tag line: “On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog.”
Except, now, they do.
That glorious time when our Internet persona was nothing more nor less than how you expressed yourself is gone. Commonplace, very fast connections have made it possible to have graphics, photos, and full motion video and sound. Now, all of those things that didn’t matter before have moved into this space as well. Now, the Internet is just an extension of all the ills of “out there”, but it’s even worse. Because there’s that distance still. People can still hide behind a keyboard and say things they’d never dream of saying to your face, because they aren’t. After all, there’s no one real on the other end. I once had some random person tell me, when my wife was recovering from a very serious heart operation, that we should consider euthanasia for her. OK, remember when I said very little shocks me anymore? That did. So all the prejudice, bigotry, venom, and invective that’s out there is amped up another notch in here, a place that used to be safe, a place where we discussed things as one human being to another.
No, of course it wasn’t all roses and candy way back when. There was alt.flame, after all. But still, things were a lot more civil, and the signal to noise ratio was much, much higher. On today’s Internet, I can’t read the comments often, because they make me too angry.
Maybe the Internet didn’t intend to promise that we’d evolve as human beings and we’d be able to take our level playing field of ideas to the wider world. Maybe it didn’t promise that to anyone but me. Maybe it didn’t promise anything at all, but I just assumed that it did. I wish I knew. I wish we would grow up as a race, as one race (that being human), and value each other for who we are individually. That was the promise I saw back in 1992. Instead, we are divided, we tear each other down, screw the next guy so long as I get mine, you have no value because you’re different from me, and there are no consequences for my being a complete ass, because this is the Internet and no one knows who I am.
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I wasn’t so sure when I started, only that I needed to sort out my feelings about it. I don’t have answers. I don’t know why we can’t just leave our bigotry and prejudice at the door. I understand and accept that as human beings, we all have prejudice. If someone tells you that he does not, he is lying, either to you or to himself. It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition. One of the really great things about being human, however, is that we have reason. Well, we’re supposed to have reason anyway. So can we not use that reason to acknowledge that, yes, I have a prejudice, or such and such kinds of people make me uncomfortable. Recognize this, then resolve to go beyond it. Simple to say, harder to do, but an we please start by veing polite and listening respectfully to other people’s ideas and viewpoints? Maybe if we can see something from the other guy’s point of view, we can all get along better. Maybe we can then find the things that bring us together rather than the ones that will tear us apart. It’s a start, anyway.
Well, I guess i didn’t really answer the question, and I also didn’t really clear this up in my own mind. I’m not really feeling any better about it either. Zero for three this time. Sorry. Better luck next time.