Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There are few types of praise that have not been directed at the Internet at one point or another. Such accolades range from the prosaic to the promising, but at core they carry the concept that the Internet has ushered in a wonderful new age in which the connected are all blessed to be a part. It is quite easy to be pulled into this technological romanticism as the experience of greater convenience, the excitement of devices that seem straight out of science-fiction, and the sense that anything is possible (just stir in the right apps) have all begun to permeate almost all discussions. To every problem we are assured there will be a technological – and Internet connected – solution. That the Internet will make everything wonderful is not just propaganda disseminated by those trying to sell us things, it has become part of the underlying ideology we encounter all about us.
Yet it is periodically worth remembering that the bright eyed futurism we encounter only appears bright because those eyes are reflecting the light from a screen – the technological ideology is not so much a new ideology as another layer of paint atop the same ideologies with which we have become all too accustomed. While it would be foolish to wholly disregard the potentialities of the Internet, or to deny the presence of much worthwhile content online, it is worth bearing in mind that technologies represent sets of political, social, economic and ethical commitments – and generally these are a reflection of the dominant forces at work in the society that produced these new technologies. In other words, before we allow ourselves to become too swept up in technological euphoria about the wonderful utopian space the Internet has allowed us to play in, we should remember just how hostile this space can be.
And we should not forget, or discount, the hostility and hate that many of us have encountered in that space.
A recent study released by the Pew Research Center titled “Online Harassment” provides a rather dark assessment of what many people encounter whilst online – specifically what people experience online whilst coming into contact with others. Consider some of the key findings:
“73% of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it…60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names; 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone; 25% had seen someone being physically threatened; 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time; 19% said the witnessed someone being sexually harassed; 18% said they had seen someone be stalked;” (Pew, 2)
Furthermore this harassment targets some groups more than others:
“Young adults, those 18-29, are more likely than any other demographic to experience online harassment.” (Pew, 3)
“Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment.” (Pew, 3/4)
“African-American and Hispanic internet users are more likely than their white counterparts to experience harassment online.” (Pew, 15)
And yet the most surprising thing about the Pew study is not any of the numbers cited above, but that none of the numbers cited above are actually very much of a surprise. If anything the numbers almost seem rather low. Yet, even the outrageous statistics about the rates of “severe” forms of harassment provoke a somewhat defeated shrug. Running through the Pew study, particularly the open-ended responses, is a sort of inured acceptance – a woebegone acknowledgment that going online means opening oneself up to all manners of harassment. Though social networking websites, and online gaming platforms, are locations where much of the harassment is experienced, the harassment is not limited to those spaces. Indeed, if there is an online space in which people have an opportunity to engage with other people it is quite potentially a space where harassment (as well as threats and abuse) may take place.
In a setting where people become accustomed to receiving, or potentially receiving, all manner of hostility – there can grow a certain attitude of “ignore and shrug-off” which may prove effective in the case of “less severe” forms of harassment; however, it allows the culture of online hostility to fester. Alas, a topic that is little explored in the Pew Study is the degree to which the threat of harassment drives people to modify their behavior online in an attempt to avoid being made a target. Worthy of particular consideration is the case of severe forms of harassment – while a staggering number of people experience such forms of harassment significantly higher percentages have witnessed somebody else being targeted. Though the chilling effect that witnessing such encounters can have is hard to quantify (it may drive subconscious decisions as much as conscious ones), this freezing should not be discounted as it may result in numerous people avoiding particular topics online for fear of subjected to the heinous treatment they have witnessed others receiving.
Of course, this leaves us with the question that can be unfortunately summed up in two words: so what?
After all, it seems that a certain level of harassment (vile and anonymous though it may be) has become part of the standard online experience. It is as if there is a harassment bug written somewhere into the source code of Internet connected technology that we simply cannot erase. And thus we click “block” or “report abuse” or try to ignore the experience regardless of how deeply unsettled or upset we may feel. We tell ourselves that “we won’t let the harassers win” but insofar as we “just ignore them” we risk ceding ever more online space to them. Those actually concerned about matters of ethics easily find themselves in a maze wherein the attempt to balance large values like “freedom of speech” abuts the recognition that an atmosphere of harassment and hate is one in which many have had their own “freedom of speech” constrained by fear. When one feels they must keep their opinions quiet lest they invite an onslaught of negativity from anonymous (or not so anonymous) sources, many may elect to comment upon the weather instead – granted, there is no way of predicting what will elicit harassment. While the outside world (“in real life” so to speak) can be a site of enormous hostility and a zone of wretched harassment, the online realm is proving quite capable of reproducing these conditions with the added bonus of anonymity.
In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote what remains one of the essential texts of Internet idolatry titled “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” – and within his short bromide against the old dinosaur like bureaucracies Barlow defiantly proclaimed:
“We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
While one can still appreciate the utopian longing in Barlow’s vision – the Pew study (and in all likelihood, your own experience) act as an unfortunate rebuttal to his sentiments. For despite the hopes for what kind of “a world” the Internet would be, nearly two decades after Barlow’s “Declaration” was written, we can see that the Internet is a space that is still very much shaped by “privilege” and “prejudice” and far from “creating a world” where none would face “silence or conformity” the online realm has largely taken on the characteristics of the world from which it was hoping to break away. This is not to claim that that the Internet is terrible, full stop, but it is to put forth a reminder that the feeling of awesomeness that the Internet may inspire can as much be a feeling of confounded awe at the prevalence of harassment as it can be awe at a resource like Wikipedia.
The communications technologies that we wield today are extremely impressive, but our ability to stay in constant contact has not broadened our ethical horizons. Too often it seems that the ability to learn about and encounter all manners of other viewpoints has been treated as an opportunity to express hostility instead of as an opportunity to learn. All the while the large, predominantly corporate, platforms on which we encounter each other (or at least each other’s avatars) rest easy in the knowledge that (thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996) they will not be held accountable for the harassment that transpires in their spaces – unless it reaches a point where they fear it will drive away their advertisers. While the main outrage that these harassment rates inspire should remain fixed upon the harassment (meaning: the harassers), the further tragedy is the degree to which it has come to be expected and worse accepted.
When we look into the surfaces of our technological devices – from smart phones to tablets to laptops to other screens – we easily become drawn in and seduced by the whirl of colors and information that flash before us. Yet the moment we need to remember is the time before the graphics entrance us – the moment in which the device simply acts as a reflective surface. For, as the Pew study gallingly reminds us, the technology we use reflects the dominant values of the society in which it is entrenched.
To combat harassment we cannot rely on a quick technological fix – but if we are serious about these issues – hopefully we can still rely on each other.
John Perry Barlow, 2/8/1996, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”
Pew Research Center, October 2014, “Online Harassment.”