Sunday, August 28, 2016

Half The People, Half The Time

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.

—E.B. White

Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet. I truly love that it has democratized information. Having written for newspapers and magazines both before and after the advent of the Internet (yes, I'm that old), I can remember telephoning sources, poring over dusty bound directories, driving to municipal and county halls of record, and trudging out to libraries, all to unearth one fact or to look up a name. Honestly, I don't know how we did it; I certainly don't know how we did it quickly and efficiently. Now, the Internet at least gives us a starting point and, if nothing else, a list of possible sources. And email, another Internet-based technology, gives us a pipeline directly to many of those sources.

But more than that, I love the way that the Web has opened up the world to many of those to whom it had previously been shuttered. Not all, of course; we're a long way from an ideal world in which everyone has the same access to such resources. But many more have it today than they did 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. Knowledge truly is power, after all, and more people have access to that knowledge than ever before. The Internet—and the access it provides—is both the natural outgrowth and a continuing echo of Gutenberg's printing press, which unleashed a (sometimes quite literal) revolution of information; that avalanche of knowledge, freely accessible for perhaps the first time, shook the world, and the world still trembles in its wake today. The Internet, I think, is truly that important. (Which is one reason we have to keep working to ensure that everyone has unfettered access to it.)

Gamergate principal Zoe Quinn. Photo courtesy
of Zoe Quinn.
But,  then . . .  There’s also an ugly side to the Web. In democratizing information, we have also democratized misinformation and provided a mechanism that seems particularly well-suited to the delivery of hate and bigotry and misogyny. The Internet seems to have fostered an anonymity-fueled onslaught of ugliness. It's not enough to disagree with someone, which could, after all, be done with tact and grace and . . . well, respect. We seem to have lost that. Instead, many Internet users spew hate and vitriol instead of engaging in reasoned and dispassionate argument. They don't converse, they don't argue, they don't debate; they attack.

Check the comments thread of any news or magazine article. How many comments does it take before you hit the first ugly one? The first in which the writer's disagreement includes an insult? How long before the "comment" is pure insult, without even the pretense of mounting an actual argument?

It doesn't take very many comments to hit that first nasty one, does it? And the type of publication almost doesn't matter. Political blogs. News sites. Technical magazines. They all get nasty, and very quickly—and they often morph abruptly from merely critical to outright threatening. If you'd like to see real-life examples of this, just Google actresses Leslie Jones, Emma Watson, and Ashley Judd; because of their activism, they've all been threatened with rape and worse.

Or ask Zoe Quinn. Quinn was involved in the so-called Gamergate controversy, which began when a group of gamers accused Quinn and others of garnering positive reviews for their games because of favors (some allegedly sexual) offered to game reporters. (Some of you may not much care about games; I certainly don't. But keep in mind that it's a very big business, delivering a complex, sophisticated, cutting edge product to extremely passionate and knowledgeable users. It matters a great deal to many, many people.) 

From Leveling the Playing Field:

Gamergate started out as a legitimate argument about what some people felt was shady journalism: game reviewers who may have been influenced one way or another (but not by the quality of the game itself) to give positive reviews. At the beginning (for about an hour, maybe) it was a debate about ethics in journalism—surely a subject about which a group of reasonable people could have an intelligent discussion, or even a civilized argument. Then the issue got hijacked by a bunch of needy, abusive, misogynistic children. Instead of intelligent adults arguing their points of view, it became something else. Something ugly and malicious and disturbing.

Zoe and her partner, Alex, were two of the main (though not the only) targets of that misogyny and hate. They were threatened, "swatted" (SWAT teams were sent to their homes after the police were told that there were problems there), and "doxxed" (their private information released). For many months, Zoe and her partner were afraid to go home, and ended up in hiding.

It will no doubt take someone smarter than I to figure out why this problem exists, and more space than I have here to sort it all out. In my mind, I suspect that the issue has to do with the fact that there is simply a lot of hatred out there, a lot of ugliness—and it's easier to attack someone at a remove, especially when you can do so anonymously.

In the end, the world is full of ugly people and good people. And the Internet, being a product of our ingenuity, is after all simply a reflection of that world, with all of its beauty and unsightliness on display.

I don't know if democracy is merely a "suspicion," and one that's so far not quite proved. If so, then I'm not sure that bodes well for us. On the other hand, I kind of prefer Winston Churchill's comment (actually, he was quoting someone else at the time): "Democracy is the worst form of government . . . except for all the others." 

If Churchill was right (and he was often right), then perhaps this wild digital democracy is the best we can do, and we’ll find ways to mitigate the evil and protect one another from the ugliness. In the meantime, perhaps we could make it a priority to just . . . be kind, whenever and wherever possible; it costs nothing, after all, and it may redeem us yet.

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