Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Internet Ethics

My daughter and I were watching “Harvey” last night. A movie made in the 1950’s. A scene in the first act was at a Tea in which Veta Simmons invites numerous ladies of high society to hear a lady sing.

My daughter turned to me and said (as only a 15-year-old can) “That would be SO boring!” I reminded her how, prior to Television, people were entertained differently. Speeches were events. Variety shows were the highlight of the year. How people could not just turn on a box and watch something 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Whether we like it or not, how we relate has changed. Prior to telephones, the only relating we could do is face to face, or by letter. The idea of relating to another person in another continent would be a commitment. Not an afterthought.

Life progressed with telephones, automobiles and airplanes. We sat on porches in the evening to talk to our neighbors. We were on bowling leagues. We were in 4-H.

Life progressed more and faster. Front porches gave way to back yard decks. Rather than attend a church because it was within walking distance, we attended a church we liked within driving distance. And if we became disenchanted with that church, we found another within driving distance.

We began to pick schools, not because of where we lived, but the quality of the academics or the programs offered. Our friends live 10 or 20 or 30 miles away. We no longer knew our next-door neighbors first names, let alone how their children were doing.

But even with that, we have a limited resource by which to develop our relationships. Our pool was church, school, work or locale. Each of us have been faced with a situation in which we have had to make a decision whether to continue a friendship within this set of people, either because of offending the other, or being offended, or some other moral reason.

Along came the internet. Our “pool” has now developed into a world-wide relationship base. If I want to find a white male, unmarried, who has converted from Mormonism to Islam, a google search and some effort, and the next thing you know, I am talking to not one, but five or six. What would be the chance I could find such an individual within the old social circle of church, school, etc.? Not very great.

And with this new gang of people talking, chatting, blogging, foruming and e-mailing, I wonder how our old ethics system will fair. It is not designed for this much interaction.

Take the adage: “Love your neighbor.” In my average day, there are only so many people I can encounter and utilize that principle. I can only offend so many! Maybe a few drivers on the way to work, I let cut in front of me. Or a tip and a smile to the harried coffee clerk. A help to some co-workers. An extra effort for some clients. Then back home (letting in a few more drivers) to help my wife and children.

Here, on the ‘net, I can encounter millions. Now, I seriously doubt that millions of people are reading my blog. Frankly, without a counter, it may only be a faithful dozen. BUT, the potential is there that any person of millions, could inadvertently wander in and be offended. What is my responsibility under “Love my neighbor”?

Can I start a blog called, “ChristianityCanSuckMyBigToe” and seriously be considered as “loving my neighbor”? Yet we have a site called “AtheismSucks.” Is that “Loving your neighbor”? Would Jesus be a contributor at “AtheismSucks”? (WWJB?) I wonder how a Christian can effectively write on-line, yet constantly maintain a “love your neighbor” attitude. Somebody, somewhere is certain to be offended. Can we just write that person off?

In real life, we have a limiting factor by time and locale. Here, on the ‘net, I can probably find a way to offend somebody at any time of the day. What do I do about that responsibility? Sadly, I see most simply shrug. “Hey, you can’t please everybody.” No, you can’t. So what ethic do you develop by which enough “somebodys” are bothered that you change?

Imagine I write a blog entry. And one Christian writes in “Hey, this was offensive to me.” My personal moral is to treat others as they would like to be treated. This person does not want to read what I have written. Do I delete it? Do I explain myself, in the hopes of convincing them otherwise?

Another Christian writes in that this was offensive. And another. Eventually 100 Christians write in, all claiming it was offensive. And not a single Christian said it was fine. I would think we all agree that I have violated my personal moral. I did not treat others as they would like to be treated. But what if 1 out of the 100 said it was O.K.? Or two? Or it was divided 50/50?

How many Christians does it take for me to violate my own ethic?

Of course, the most dramatic shift is the ability to be anonymous. In real life, I am immediately aware of when I have offended another driver. That middle finger she is waiving at me communicates effectively. When we offend or hurt another in life, it is very often face-to-face. We see the person. Or we will see them next Sunday.

That personal interaction tempers our speech and tone. We have all read internet battles. Have you ever read one as if the two (or more) participants were speaking face to face? If you saw that on the street, you would be certain that a physical fight was imminent! But when “DagoodS” is writing to “PapaBear 352”* I can call them an “ignorant buffoon who couldn’t outsmart a rock, and should do their personal effort to help increase the average I.Q. of their country by moving somewhere else. Like an unpopulated island.”

We think nothing of such statements on-line, yet in real life we would be aghast at the affront of someone saying such things. (Add the capital letters and we could REALLY see a fight!)

I don’t know PapaBear 352. I literally do not know what hemisphere of the world they live in, their sex, age, marital status, or anything. And that “not knowing” coupled with them not knowing mine, gives me license to write what I want, when I want and how I want?

Is what is transpiring on-line going to cross over to real life, or are we developing a completely different moral system here? I see us as an evil Superman, with a secret Identity.

Clark: Morning Lois! Boy, this is great coffee! Anything I can help you with?
Lois: No, Clark. Thanks.

Clark: Great! I’ll just check my e-mail.
*Logs in to ‘EvilSuper’*
*Reads e-mail from ‘JimPhoto’*

EvilSuper: What?! [typing] You senseless TWIT! It is PEOPLE like YOU that give newspapers a BAD NAME! How you EVER got a job is beyond me! You can’t even spell ‘hawsehole’ correctly! Its one word—moron! Come back when you have a third-grade education. DUMBASS.
*logs off*

Clark: Hey Lois, can you call Jimmie? He’s such a nice kid; I want to take him to lunch.
Lois: Not right now, he got an e-mail from some guy called ‘EvilSuper’ and is typing out a response…

Is the internet making us worse, the same, or just different by being able to communicate anonymously? Is it the real us, or a different side of us?

In addition, thanks to the commonality of the set we associate with, there is bound to be someone that agrees with our statements. Who can stroke our ego and support us. “Naw, you were fine. That silly thin-skinned Christian was too sensitive when you called posted a picture of a naked Jesus in Chocolate. Not your fault.” We can offend others AND receive encouragement at the same time!

Where can we do that in real life?

And the neat part is that it is so immediate. In life, when we offend others, or are offended, we pause and reflect. Sometimes we will not even see the person for a period of time before we can respond. That gives us a moment to stop and consider what to say, and how to say it.

Here, we have hardly finished reading before we have clicked “Reply” and start banging out a venomous response. Our brain does not have time to kick in and say, “You know, maybe you should re-think this…”

Another interesting dynamic that has recently come across my radar—how do we communicate that what we find is unacceptable to us. To use another example—what if I am on a forum. And another poster makes a comment about me, or another, or in general that I find completely distasteful. I respond, to no avail. I PM, to receive either hate-mail or no response. I complain to moderators who are uninterested.

What do I do? What does my ethic require of me? Do I shrug it off and continue? Do I walk with my feet? Do I demand an apology over and over and over? We don’t have a great many options.

Do any of us like those blogs were all of a sudden a seemingly rationale person begins to type about how “CrazyEight”* over at “bobo.blogspot”* wrote something mean about them, and now the blogger is going to show THEM by telling the world about what has transpired, and how they were hurt, and let’s see the whole history…

Yes, I know it may be cathartic for that blogger at that moment…but after having read the first dozen—are they that interesting? Isn’t just another internet battle with different names and different issues, but the same words?

Recently I have been struck by the difference between internet ethics and life. Sorry—no answers in this blog entry. I almost feel as if this is too big of a creature to wrap my arms around.

Any thoughts?

*completely made up moniker(s). If there IS someone who happens to have this as an internet name, I most certainly did NOT mean you!


  1. I understand this phemona a little also - having been on blogs for about 2 years or so (and chats before that). I have seen the interaction - most of it is good - but then again we do find potholes in good roads.

    I have quit dialoguing with a few people over it - I don't fell the need to debase someone at their expense on the internet - call it a sense of realness I try to add back into the system. I have seen my share of it and I find it absolutely distasteful - that being said - I am all in for a good discussion on issues (but that does not mean I have to debase you in order to talk with you - a point you make very well in this blog).

    Hey Dagoods, I appreciate the writing!

  2. I have a love/hate relationship with the www. One of the things I hate is the missing tone and facial expression dimension of face to face relationship.

    We hear these stories of natives in some far off land who have extraordinary sense of smell or hearing or sight. The explanation is that we have lost these sensitivities because they have been replaced or reduced by modern conveniences. Would our life be richer if we could smell the roses instead of the Febreeze?

    Are we destined to lose our politeness because we are shielded from the whole person by a plasma screen and anonymity? I wonder if that woman who flips you off in traffic would do the same if you cut her off walking into a building, without the car and distance between you? It seems the modern conveniences can cause the 'norm' to erode.

    Are we in the middle of an evolutionary leap? We have the stimulus but haven't evolved to properly cope with it? Or has it been the same since the invention of the club?

    Damn, you shouldn't have asked for "any" thoughts from a space cadet.

    I wonder about violence, this disregard for another human life that seems to be just under the surface of humankind. It seems everything we invent is used as an offensive weapon sooner or later. Never mind the nukes or computers, some cannot even handle a box cutter politely.

    Is this the same old discussion? "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Computers don't cause rudeness, people cause rudeness?

    Is every new invention just a potential measuring device demonstrating who and where we are collectively and individually?

  3. Paul,

    It is your last question that I find nagging at me.

    We all recognize that certain locations impose a different moral standard. What you and I would say, do or wear at a baseball game, for example, would be very unlike how we would act at a wedding or funeral or business meeting. Is the internet another “locale” in which we act in a discordant fashion than we would in real life?

    Or will we change?

    Ever look at a picture of the crowd at a 50’s or 60’s professional sporting event? The (few) women are in dresses, and the men are wearing suits and ties! What they yelled, how they acted—we can see how that has changed over the past 50 years.

    Acronyms of the ‘net are creeping in to our society already. My daughter freely uses “BFF” when referring to certain people. (“Best Friends Forever.”) We e-mail each other more than we talk on the telephone.

    Is there any reason, just as TV and Movies have modified our ethics regarding sex and speech, that the internet will not do so as well?

    Do you consider it an improvement?

    I understand your love/hate with the www. There is so much that is good, yet I get the feeling it is eating away at our society. 50 years from now, will we all be living in dark little rooms, enjoying computer-generated company with people from all around the world, but no physical interaction?

  4. Dagoods wrote:
    ___________________________________Is there any reason, just as TV and Movies have modified our ethics regarding sex and speech, that the internet will not do so as well?

    Well, you know the answer of course...your daughter answered with BFF. Then there's always "cyber sex."

    dagoods wrote:
    Is the internet another “locale” in which we act in a discordant fashion than we would in real life?

    The word "locale" and "real life" are evoking something in me here. I guess, as you quote locale, the point is made that it's not really a place we actually 'go,' maybe in our imagination. We have had past discussions on the origins of morality. If I hit myself with a club, I know it hurts and can then figure that's a universal result of clubbing. The internet leaves out most (all?) of our senses, from which our morality may have originated. There's a certain sensory deprivation that takes place. Have you seen the gorilla experiments where they isolate the baby gorilla from all contact with living beings and the gorilla grows up anti social? Could that be the effect of employing methods of relationship that leave out sensory exchange?

    "Is it an improvement?" I don't know, seems mixed, as with all technology. Cars get us to the hospital faster when we're dying from the asthma caused by smog.

    I think I raised more questions than I managed to answer. Still fleshing it out. Good topic.