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Our Addiction To The Internet Is As Harmful As Any Drug


Something is rotten in the state of technology. I only realised the extent of this when I wrote last year about an Irish government minister who had committed suicide just before Christmas 2012, partly because – according to his brother at the graveside – he had received so many abusive messages on the internet. The response from those claiming to be “readers” of this newspaper was 1) to suggest that the brother was lying; 2) that the minister deserved to die because of his policies (which included cuts in care homes); and 3) to condemn the dead minister for not being thoughtful enough to postpone his suicide until after Christmas.

Was it always like this? Did these hateful anonymous messages arrive when “Letters to the Editor” was the only way to express feelings – in print, of course – about other human beings? “Name and address supplied” was the last straw in anonymity that any editor permitted. But now anonymity must be protected, cosseted, guarded, because privacy, even privacy to abuse, is more important than responsibility. “Online comment” – and the “comment” bit definitely deserves a “sic” – takes precedence over criminal threats.

As I travel around the world to lecture on the Middle East, I am finding that an increasing number of journals are suspending or restricting online comment. Among the latest to do so was the National Catholic Register, whose editor, Dennis Coday, decided that the malicious, abusive and vile comments received – far from remarks on the substance of an article – were “pure vandalism”. Coday suggested it was everyone’s responsibility to make the internet a civil place by making contributors identifiable, just as they were in the days when editors (and lawyers) decided whose letters may or may not be published.

The Irish columnist Breda O’Brien wrote in February that, while she had to adhere to strict guidelines in her work as a print journalist, it was “bizarre” that “people can comment on my articles with impunity and say anything they like about me or about others. The sheer level of nastiness is difficult to describe”. O’Brien wrote of the “dark” experience of those who – online – wish her to “be badly beaten, or die from painful diseases, or that my children be taken away from me… One person has repeatedly expressed the wish that I be burned to death”. Much of this material is intended to “take down” individuals. “The savagery of online commentary,” O’Brien wrote, “is beginning to bleed into everyday discussions.”

She is right. I have written before of the foul, racist abuse I receive – passed on in hard copy by friends who say they sometimes fear for my safety – and of the ambivalent, slovenly way in which those who are involved in “chat rooms” and “platforms” run away from their own responsibility by claiming that they’ve no money for a “mediator” (by which they mean editor) or that “the internet is here to stay, whether you like it or not”. Journalists around the world have noticed this phenomenon, whether it be the “preening nastiness of online comment” in Brazilian media about the need for street vigilantes, or the outright ethnic hatred that you can find on the websites of quite respectable publications, often remarks which should result in prosecution for racial hatred.

Some of the material I read about Muslims – sent to me on paper by internet users who are even more shocked than I have become – are the product of psychopaths, demanding the rape of Muslim women. Equally venomous, and just as dangerous, is the anti-Semitic filth aimed at journalists, politicians, historians and activists who are Jewish. One European Jewish government minister wrote of how “racist and prejudiced online commentary … all too frequently results on occasions when I am personally in the public eye”. I should add that both those claiming to loathe Israel and those claiming to support it are also on the front line of dishing out abuse.

Perhaps my own fury and frustration with this state of affairs makes my response all the more direct. But the dirt, racism, foul abuse, the lies and innuendo and slanders and bullying on the web, in blogs and text messages and chat rooms, has become a sickness. “Trolls”, we call these psychologically disturbed people, and even that is indicative of our craven addiction to technology. So awed are we – so “taken over” by the new science of communication – that we have to liken these poison-pen writers and abusers to creatures of Scandinavian mythology rather than to the fantasists and racial bullies whom they really are.

It leaches, this language, into the shock-jock radio shows and to right-wing cable news channels, and it deadens the soul; not in the religious sense, but in the way in which the internet itself – the experience of “social media” – has indeed become an addiction as fearsome as drugs or cigarettes. We must be “computer literate” rather than “literate”; some of the hard copy e-mails I receive are not only ungrammatical – the spelling is also appalling – but virtually incomprehensible. Who were the first addicts? The young who gulped down these new “freedoms” – or their peers who told them that this was the way forward?

I’m still stunned by a moment several years ago when I was asked by a student, after giving a lecture at a US university, if I “could name any good websites on the Middle East”. I replied with four words: what’s wrong with books? The students cheered. Their academic tutors in the front row glowered at me reproachfully.

The internet catastrophe – perhaps I should say tragedy – grows tentacles. We have become, as one psychologist has said, “seduced by distraction”. We no longer reflect. We react. We don’t read books – always supposing we buy them – we “surf” them. Take Spritz. According to its own pap advertising, it’s a “Boston-based start-up focused on text-streaming technology”, whose founders are “serial entrepreneurs with extensive experience in developing and commercialising innovative technologies”. And you’ll not be surprised to learn that the crackpots running Spritz, after inviting fans to read up to 600 words a minute, claim that you’ll soon be able to read Tolstoy’s War And Peace in less than 10 hours.

Is that not part of the problem? When you delete thought, impoverish literature and worship technology – not as a wonderful scientific achievement but as a god – then there are no rules. You can drink Tolstoy, smoke books, and breathe in hatred. Something rotten? What does rotten mean?

4 Comments

  1. Rick Zsar May 27, 2014 2:09 am 

    I have noticed the comment sections shrinking over many of my favorite sites, and probably for good reason. If I can endure the trolls, and the occasional tiff that devolves into infantile nonsense, I do enjoy the follow-up discussion and debate to any thought provoking article. Demand commentators log in with real names, as I have. Place time limits to end the discussion and encourage folks to move on. I am sure large sites could devise a system of volunteer monitors similar to Wikipedia if moderators (or editors) are too costly.

    I agree Robert, discourse has not been assisted by the arrival of the internet comment section, but I would argue it was on it’s way out before the internet provided great walls of privacy. In my humble experience over 50 years, critical thought, political literacy and public policy are simply not high in any significant education curriculum or social forum.

    • avatar
      Paul August 11, 2014 6:10 pm 

      Late comment…. but here in the USA, anonymity is often needed because potential ramification of our employers knowing our political views. But I agree that internet discussions need to be better moderated with respect to civility and staying on-topic. Other discussion ground rules should be established – such as ways to limit promoters of some of the more outrageous conspiracy theories.

  2. David Dobereiner May 26, 2014 9:04 pm 

    Jerimy Rifkin, in his BOOK, Zero Marginal Cost Society, makes the opposite argument, that the internet will be our salvation. By providing goods and services almost free, it will lead to the end of Capitalism.
    I have my doubts.
    But, as the author of one book, I support Robert in his promotion of a return to literacy, but have even bigger doubts about whether this will ever really happen.

  3. avatar
    Michael Ri May 26, 2014 1:44 pm 

    Of course, Robert is right.

    As a side note, when I was in South America where I have lived for many years, I wanted to read his book about the Middle East. It was not available in English, nonetheless, it is a huge book, some 300 pages longer in Spanish than English. The cost was a bit overwhelming, too. I pondered and wondered and every time I passed a nearby bookstore with this book in the window, I struggled. Nonetheless, eventually I could hold out no longer, bought it, and read it in Spanish, which was, of course, more demanding for me. Well worth it, and worth more than years of blog reading, as much as I enjoy some really good folks who write on the internet, including ZNET. It was not for some years later that I was in London and brought it in English. Frankly, there was something about struggling my way through the book in Spanish that gave it even added impact and meaning for me.

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