Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Reality of the Internet

The internet is not a community; it is a mob. ~ Zoltan

Back in 2005 (geez, I've been writing this for that long?), I offered my opinion of so-called internet “communities”. Well, nothing that has happened in the intervening years has changed my opinion. In fact, the internet has lived down to my expectations spectacularly.
Part of the problem, of course, is the fallacy of anonymity. If you want to bring out the worst in people, allow them to feel that there is no way to trace evil comments or actions to them. You will then find out that people who normally would never express an evil thought publicly can spit out huge amounts of vituperation in a heartbeat. I discussed this to some extent in my last post.
But that just involved speech. The internet has also become a cesspool for activities that range from the appalling to the totally illegal. The irony is that, thanks to hackers, most of whom are doing it for potential monetary rewards, people engaging in unwholesome activities are getting caught, their information getting leaked to the world.

The most recent example involves some site called Ashley Madison. As I understand it, the site is a place where people in existing relationships (including being married) can cheat on their partners.
What, dating sites aren't good enough anymore?
At any rate, there is much hue and cry about this, as much about what kind of person uses this site as about the fact that it was hacked. One article, though, had a subheadline that put it into a nutshell:

"The internet isn’t what we thought it was. Our ignorance will lead to more than heartbreak."

I don't know what the author thought the internet is, but I can tell you what it wasn't supposed to be. It wasn't intended to be a place to do bad things. The founders of the Usenet and World Wide Web intended for the system to be a source for information, for exchange of ideas, for assistance with technical issues, for open debate in a civil fashion.
All that got lost fairly quickly.
The Usenet was a large collection of newsgroups on every topic under the sun. Unfortunately, it devolved over time into a source to download copyrighted material, lampoon inexperienced users (an aol.com e-mail address was death), and engage in flame wars because someone had the temerity not to agree with the groups prevailing opinion. For example, I am reasonably certain that one of the reasons Linux didn't get more mainstream was that if you went to Linux forums to try to learn something and asked an innocent “newbie” question, you didn't get an answer. You got slammed by the experts who should have been offering assistance.

When the Usenet died, there were plenty of places to offer opinions and comments. If the site wasn't moderated, it didn't take long for the trolls to take over. Trolls used to just be annoying; now they go in for death threats.
The internet has not been a really safe place for a long time. Hackers have been breaking into web sites and their associated databases almost since online commerce began. Chances are pretty good that one or more of your accounts has fallen into the hands of hackers and been sold to sites that specialize in selling that information.
Of course, there are occasionally splashing articles of some hacker being convicted and sent up the river for a while, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Worse, the same governments trying to catch the hackers are using their tools to find out what we're up to.
There is so much we can do online. We can buy all kinds of legal stuff. We can download tons of free non-copyright protected material. We can watch movies (although watching a movie on a little bitty phone screen while ignoring the 72” tv on the wall is beyond me). The stuff we can do that is good is almost limitless.
It's also a very dangerous place with all sorts of the worst of humanity doing bad things. So anything one does online has to be done with caution. The internet is not a walk in the park; it's a trip though a minefield. Avoid the mines and you're okay. Do something foolish (like signing up for a cheat-on-your-partner website) and bad things (TM) can happen.

There's no going back to the good old days, but we can at least do our best not to make these days worse.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Freely Speaking

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

One day at work, a contractor was wearing a tie in a stars-and-stripes pattern. My co-worker Terry and I mentioned that this sort of thing is actually not right, since the flag is not supposed to be used this way according to the Flag Code: “The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard. “
Now that bit of code is routinely violated as the flag symbols routinely appear on t-shirts, wastebaskets, and so on. But, given that the guy was not noted for his sense of humor, we razzed him a bit about it. That, of course, led to him complaining about people burning the flag in protests. “I don't understand,” he groused, “why that's allowed as free speech, but burning a cross in somebody's yard is not!”
We paused for a moment to pick our teeth up and tried to explain the difference between protest and hate speech.
He didn't get it.

Evidently, these days, a lot of people don't get it.

It has become the norm for trolls to issue threats of violence against people who post anything in favor of some form of human rights. Cyber-bullying has becoming a thing, where some ordinary soul finds him- or herself (usually a her) getting taunted and threatened by the goons who are a significant part of the Internet “community.” I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Internet is not a community; it's a mob. What they're doing has nothing to do with free speech; it's all to do with hate speech.
The situation has so gotten out of hand that even Twitter and Reddit are trying to create some forms of policing against these trolls. Good luck to them, but these people will just find other outlets to vent their brand of spleen.
The thing that is particularly sad is that when not posting hate, most trolls are probably ordinary folks. I have known a few that I suspect would post bullying or threatening messages, but those same people would never say things like that in public to someone's face. They might disagree strongly, they might raise their voices, but they wouldn't threaten to kill the other guy.

Then there's the other problem whereby so-called satirists go out of their way to insult some group. The flavor of the day seems to be Islam. Granted it can be easy to insult Islamists, particularly fundamentalists, but the same could be said of other fundamentalist or ultra-conservative groups. Of course, this causes the nut-fringe of Islam (like ISIL, for instance) to start killing people. This, naturally enough, causes the people who are against all Islam to point their fingers and scream, “See? We told you they were evil!!”
A rational person would think before, say, violating a basic tenet of someone's religion by publishing a picture of the Prophet, that such an action could lead to violence. A rational person might think, “I wonder if I can make my point in some other manner.”
These days, unfortunately, rational people seem to be in short supply.
Satire has always ticked off those being satirized. But well done satire is a caricature, not a slap in the face.
I wonder how many of these clever satirists, had they been in Germany, say, in 1935, would have been just as eagerly satirizing Jews as money-grubbing, anarchist, subhumans.

I am depressed these days by the extent to which hate has become an accepted mode of operation. I am even more depressed how free speech is being used as a cover story for posting or publishing vile or stupid things. The freedom to say what we think is a great thing, so long as we recognize the potential consequences. But, the freedom to say what one thinks is dependent on actually thinking in the first place.

That's a lesson all the defenders of hate speech might want to think about.