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  • The Internet As Anti-culture

    A Little Corrosion Is a Dangerous Thing

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Several of the politically repressive and culturally insulated nations of Asia can no longer resist: they are reaching their hands toward that glittering toy, the Internet. For many in the west, it's like watching a troublesome colleague light up an exploding cigar.

    Not that these nations are entirely unaware of the risks. George Yeo, Singapore's Minister of Information, believes that "the Internet is like fire. If you don't learn how to control it, it will burn you." That is why Singapore's government, under Yeo's guidance, is attempt- ing to manage the Internet by monitoring content and supervis- ing access -- all with the intent of filtering out "un-Singaporean" influences.

    The strong and fully justified assumption on this side of the Pacific is, of course, that all the caution in the world will fail. But not necessarily for the advertised reasons. New York Times edi- torialist, Philip Taubman, for example, misses the critical issue when he responds to Yeo's comment by smugly remarking, "in Singapore, a little democracy can be a dangerous thing" (Nov. 8, 1995).

    It can. But one marvels, first of all, at Taubman's blithe repetition of the mindless -- and by now badly tarnished -- axiom that the Inter- net is somehow automatically a democratizing technology. It would have been much safer to say, "A little cultural corrosion can be a dangerous thing." For this is the real truth we westerners feel in the gut as we watch foreign cultures take up our diversions.

    But cultural corrosion is not the best preparation for democracy -- a fact that the entire history of colonialism is now shouting at us. Nor is this fact only being tested in places like Africa and the Bal- kans. As the United States adapts its education system, its business, and its entertainment to the Net, we are concocting our own experiment in cultural dislocation.

    One small component of this experiment is about to begin. Within a few months, if all goes according to plan, sophisticated, offfshore gambling casinos will be taking illegal bets from the American public -- over the Internet. John Russell, a spokesman for the U.S. Depart- ment of Justice, while noting that "it's felony wire fraud to use the phone lines to place bets," went on to say that the F.B.I. is not about to prosecute bettors. "We don't consider it a priority."

    Stephen Pizzo, who interviewed Russell for the online Web Review (October 27, 1995), points out that the priorities are sim- ply an acknowledgment of reality. "Privately, Justice Department sources admit that enforcing the law in this case would require a level of intrusion into the private lives of Americans that would have made the KGB blush."

    Singapore's Yeo might well chuckle even as he sweats under the growing heat. Apparently, not only Asian hands get burned by "a little demo- cracy."

    We Americans have, of course, already proven our willingness to cede cultural ground to the gambling industry. But we are not quite so casual when it comes to the education of our children. Given the con- certed push to technologize our schools and thereby effect a Great Leap Forward into the twenty-first century, many are now raising alarms. If the Net brings the whole world to our fingertips, how can we guarantee that this world is a healthy one for the child?

    This is the only serious question about the computerized future that I have seen groups of otherwise technology-enthused educators and engineers profess themselves unable to crack. The dominant impulse to reject anything that smacks of Net censorship collides with concern for the child.

    Barry Kort has for several years run MuseNet, providing online sites where children can engage in collaborative activities. But warding off unwanted intruders turns out to be a difficult chore. Writing to the Net's "Children Accessing Controvesial Information" discussion group, Kort claims that "most offenders have multiple accounts all over the Internet, and numerous cracked passwords. Limiting their access is not a practical alternative. It's like Hydra."

    At MuseNet, Kort says, "we now spend over half of our resources on security and due process and only a fraction on science education." He continues: "I don't want such a heavily armored system that no one can use it. Ever try to take kids on a field trip in a Sherman tank?...If we all spend time building our fortresses in cyberspace, when do we have time for community building and collaboration?"

    In all discussions of this sort, the inevitable compromise between libertinism and censorship eventually surfaces. Cyberspace, we are told, must by all means remain what it is. It's the parents' respon- sibility to train their children in the proper use of the Net.

    (Translation: those of us promoting and engineering the Net are off the hook. We needn't worry any longer about the impossible dilemma into which we have thrown the family. It's the parents' worry.)

    Surely parents do carry the final responsibility. But never before have they faced a situation where every door and alleyway in the world, every book and magazine, every business establishment and conversation partner was available just outside their own front door -- let alone on the desk in their child's bedroom. One scarcely comprehends how such a medium was ever assumed to be a natural exten- sion of the classroom in the first place.

    The current, increasingly urgent pleas to provide secure online environments for children sound an amusing counterpoint to the exulta- tion with which long-time Net users have repeatedly hailed the Net's ability to outflank every attempt at control. According to a widely circulated truism of cyberspace, "The Net treats censorship like a malfunction, and routes around it."

    Is that chuckle from Singapore growing louder?

    For all the talk of "Net culture," the single most striking thing about the Net is its ability to corrode culture. A medium that treats censorship as a malfunction is also a medium that makes it impossible to sustain the distinctions of value upon which all culture is built.

    The very contention, exaggerated as it is, that the whole world is accessible through a square foot or two of glass already testifies to this. Genuine culture is only conceivable when everything is not all thrown together. It is conceivable only where there are distinct, rooted places; where real boundaries mark off those places, allowing the slow emergence of enduring, local character; where intense human presence confers reality; and where there is the kind of agonizing, liberating interaction that transmutes the deeply shared substance of numerous lives into stably evolving institutions and traditions.

    Our ability to jump from one end of cyberspace to the other with a casual mouse click already signifies a journey with little signifi- cance. But if the movement from one place to another means little, it is because any solid, distinct character has been erased from those places. Cyberspace is -- more truly than we usually grant -- no place. It leads culture over into vacuity.

    What can be said about place must also be said about the Net's cele- bration of radical, unimpeded change. Technically dictated change is change wholly divorced from human needs. It is "one damned thing after another." The trendy willingness to embrace this chaos as the harbinger of an exciting new age that will rise from the ashes of our current institutions may appear tragically noble. But it reflects above all a willingness to abandon human responsibility for what hap- pens. There is, after all, no necessity for dizzying change, except insofar as we abdicate our responsibilities, casting them to the tech- nological winds.

    Following such an abdication, we can only reap the whirlwind. When we do, we may well hear, mingled with the maelstrom's howling roar, a belly laugh coming from the east.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Internet As Anti-culture :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/corrosion.html

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