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[ NNSquad ] On the Internet and Off: Chaos and Guillotines

              On the Internet and Off: Chaos and Guillotines


A couple of days ago, when I posted on YouTube a very nice tribute to
Steve Jobs that I had seen, I used my standard settings to moderate
viewer comments.  Since "trolls" and other comment abusers are a not
uncommon annoyance, I've found this to be the best technique for
maintaining a level of "decorum" that I personally prefer in such
venues ( http://j.mp/nVpa7G [YouTube] ).

And even though the vast majority of comments were positive, and the
"thumbs-up" count exceeded thumbs down by more than two orders of
magnitude, I was still taken aback by the viciousness and obscene
hatred expressed in a considerable number of queued comments (all of
which I blew away into oblivion -- they were especially inappropriate
for a posting in the wake of such a death).

Noteworthy were the submissions -- some of considerable length -- that
seemed to equate perceived shortcomings by Jobs and Apple to a twisted
"he deserved to die" mentality.  I'm certainly no Apple fanboy -- I
have a variety of gripes with how Apple operates.  But certainly such
writings are beyond the pale in any civilized sense.  Equally
disturbing were comment submissions wishing a painful death on Bill
Gates from some professed Apple aficionados.  And in contrast to
claims that "real names" result in higher quality comments, I could
discern no differences between anonymous and obviously pseudonymous
comments and those using (supposedly or definitely) real names in
these respects.

As disturbing as many of these comments were (and are -- comments are
still rolling in), these effects are not unprecedented by any means.

In other venues, including Google+ and my inbound email, I've been
seeing what appears to be an increasing sense of hardline posturing,
even in the face of obvious factual discordances.

Try to discuss the differences between Facebook and Google privacy
policies, and comments start to fill with "they're all the same!"
proclamations suggesting a range of supposed conspiratorial
relationships.  Point out specifically where Google handles data in a
pro-privacy manner, and responses appear like "well, maybe they're not
doing something bad now, *but they could in the future!*"

This seems akin to an exchange in 1967's film "Casino Royale,"
where a character portrayed by Woody Allen claims that "People called
Einstein crazy!"  When told that no one ever called Einstein crazy,
Woody's character replies, "Well, they would have if he'd carried on
like this!"

Another example.  There is justifiable criticism of Microsoft's Bing
for their continuing direct participation in Chinese government
censorship regimes.  But does this make Microsoft crazy?

Some observers seem to think so.  When Microsoft's free antivirus
package recently incorrectly flagged and started deleting Google's
Chrome browser as a virus, I was inundated with messages from people
convinced that this was a purposeful act by Microsoft to "damage"
Chrome's market share.

But even a cursory bit of serious thinking reveals the illogical
nature of such an assumption.  The risks of getting caught doing
something like that would be enormous.  It would make no sense from a
cost/benefit or any other angle, and would essentially require
imputing criminal motives to Microsoft that would be an utterly
nonsensical risk for them.

Why are so many people so loudly buying into such ludicrous concepts
on the Net?

We need only look to the rising tide of chaos and refusal to
compromise off the Net to understand, since the Net is ultimately but
a reflection of the world at large.

In a time when it has become "de rigueur" by some on the right to
insanely compare President Obama with Hitler, to call Obama
simultaneously a communist, fascist, and socialist, and where the GOP
has aligned itself with a Tea Party that indisputably contains racist
elements within its ranks, the sense of increasing chaos seems

Nor are those on the left blameless in this maelstrom.  Similar harsh
epithets and calls of "traitor" against Obama are not infrequent from
that side of the political spectrum, usually in concert with
complaints that Obama has not single-handedly brought about desired
major changes, despite the fact that a non-dictatorial president's
ability to bring about real change is extraordinarily constrained by
legal and institutional factors ( http://j.mp/rlGOKl [SSRN] ).

Author David Brin (with whom I don't always agree) has very recently
and aptly suggested that the forces we see in play today, especially
in regard to skewed accumulation of wealth and refusals to apply
marginally higher tax rates to the wealthiest members of society, have
created an environment strikingly similar to that prior to the French
Revolution ( http://j.mp/qXqWD9 [Brin] ).

Presumably few of us want to see a return to the widespread use of _la
guillotine_ to cull the ruling class.  But when you see vast numbers
of persons without proper health care (making us the laughingstock of
the western world), and increasing crowds of disaffected individuals
protesting against the financial criminals who nearly triggered a
global depression -- evaded only by the imposition of unpopular
bailouts -- it understandably should bring chills to the spines of
some observers on high.

In reality of course, not all members of the GOP and Tea Party are
racists, just as everyone on the left aren't anarchists.  But we know
that such persons do exist at both ends of the spectrum, and there is
a natural tendency to perceive groups by virtue of their most extreme
(and often loudest) members.

An old saying (not fair to the dog lovers among us!) is that "when you
lay down with dogs, don't be surprised if you wake up with fleas."

In other words, if we allow those persons whose ultimate goals are
dissension rather than reasoned compromise -- and chaos over the
common good -- to be the framers of these debates, we are permitting
them to characterize us as well as themselves, and in the process
allowing them to condemn all of us to their dismal fates.

This is true both on the Internet and in the "real world" -- a
distinction that is becoming less meaningful with every passing day as
the Net continues to fundamentally pervade more and more aspects of
our lives.

Can we harness the Internet as a means to steer the world away from
chaos, to use its unparalleled ability to disseminate knowledge and
truth to aim us toward the light?

Or will the Net follow toxic footsteps deep into the darkness, perhaps
a future where webcams are used primarily to watch figurative bloody
heads fall into figurative wicker baskets -- or maybe not so
figurative at that.

The best of times?  The worst of times?  Future history 
awaits our answer.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren 
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org 
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org 
 - Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com 
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com 
Google+: http://vortex.com/g+lauren 
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com