The internet has many wonderful aspects and uses, but the inclusion of a little more wisdom, and respect for human dignity is surely a good and necessary thing.
By Michelle Martin
Published May 07, 2009
Been thinkin' about online reputations. Some old, some young. Been thinkin' there's a whole mess of damage being done, in ways we're only beginning to understand. And we'll only understand if we take some time to stop and think about it.
Here in the online wild west, it might be time to call on the Marshall:
You're such a groovy thinker
We really dig what you say
'Cause you've got the best
Insight into mass media
This side of the Rio Grande
People have been repeating that old McLuhan nugget, "The medium is the message," for forty five years - ever since it appeared in his book Understanding Media, the year I was born. To this day, it's bandied about with varying degrees of insight or even comprehension.
I know I don't yet fully grasp what he meant by it, except the idea that our use of any medium impacts both us and the society around us because of its form as well as its content - and that new media can do this in unforeseen and profound ways.
But wait, there's more.
As Mark Federman, Chief Strategist for the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, has written in his essay What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message: "Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. [emphasis added]"
Of course it's obvious on the surface that blogs, email, Facebook, Twitter and so on have changed interpersonal dynamics. But what specifically concerns me about this is the capacity for damage to personal reputations and its impact on relationships.
Because of the viral nature of the internet, something you did when you were fifteen can keep popping up in search engines for years.
I wonder if McLuhan realized just how prophetically he was speaking when he said, "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." I wonder if he knew how very true this would prove for the Star Wars Kid, who was last in the news when he reached a settlement with his original tormentors.
He was perhaps the first high-profile example of cyberbullying. I'll be honest, here: I hesitated to even mention him, because I didn't want to whisper into the perpetual online echo chamber. But I decided I could link to the 2006 Globe and Mail article in this case, since he willingly provided quotes to the reporter who wrote it, unlike the video which originally caused him humiliation and was stolen and posted without his knowledge.
Cyberbullying isn't the only way that a person's online identity can be tampered with. I recently read about a businessman who has been libeled as a child molester by a disgruntled employee on a message board. The offending web page comes up quite high on a Google search - first page, in fact.
This unfortunate soul has, so far, no legal recourse because of jurisdictional differences and statute of limitations issues. The world wide web is indeed world wide, and legislation hasn't caught up everywhere, nor is it consistent.
It is a basic human right to be able to own and control our identity. Both cyberbullying and internet libel are pretty obvious assaults on that right, but there are other ways in which our personhood can be harmed.
For example, isn't it an assault on our dignity when our identity is established for us by others by rating our personality, achievement, and appearance in a public forum? You can't really sue anyone for that, can you? They're simply expressing an opinion, not accusing anyone of anything. And yet it trespasses on us, just the same.
Sites like Zoominfo are also tresspassers. Last month, I wrote about discovering my Zoominfo page. Some search engine had begun to compile a profile for me, without my knowledge. Unlike my pioneer ancestors, I couldn't go running out with a shotgun warning them to git offa my land. I had to settle for giving them my email address in order to claim my profile.
You'd think as a writer I'd be happy about this - hey, someone's compiling my published writing for me. But is it my best work? Nope, it's some old letter to the editor. I'm not ashamed of it, but if I was putting together a portfolio for a job application, it's not what I would start with or even include. Isn't it my right, as a person, to decide what I will present as my best work?
Thank goodness this wasn't going on back in the day and that The Varsity wasn't online. The one or two letters of mine they published were not my best work and let's just say that the tone I employed in composing them was not representative of my best self.
Nor were any of the other mistakes of my youth representative of my best self. Thank goodness those mistakes are pretty much buried, and only a few people concerned would know about them, if they remember them at all. If I was young today, they could well be a matter of public record, embarrassing to me even though they were relatively mild.
There were no camera phones to take pictures of me, no Facebook to post them on, no message boards for me to impulsively post ill-chosen remarks that I would come to regret...
There are scores of articles about young people, and even older people, feeling their lives or careers are ruined because they did something stupid, feeling like they have no chance to start over because of the infinite online echo chamber. How will this affect their freedom to choose to act differently, or even rightly, if their identity becomes the sum of their past mistakes or indiscretions, and the immediate nature of the internet perpetuates it?
It may be like living in a small town where every citizen knows, through the gossip mill, everything you've ever done, even if they don't really know you. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which McLuhan's prophetic phrase "global village" is meant to be taken.
Bear in mind that in the past you could always leave your small town and strike out somewhere else. How on earth can someone escape a global village? How will this affect our capacity to create and sustain human relationships of all kinds in the long run?
Any one person is the sum of failures and triumphs, flaws and virtues, insurmountable difficulties and obstacles overcome. He or she is more than just his or her words and actions at one moment in time. But a computer file is just that - one moment captured, in binary code.
As Neil Postman, in a talk he gave in Denver [PDF link] for a 1998 conference on New Technologies and the Human Person, stated, "Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom."
I'm no Luddite, and I know that the internet and the global village, like computers and small towns, have many wonderful aspects and uses. But the inclusion of a little more wisdom, and respect for human dignity, into the construction materials of our information highway is surely a good and necessary thing.