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  • The Internet as Terminator

    There is No Technological Fix for Prejudice

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    After the Holocaust, after the struggles of the American civil rights movement, after apartheid -- and in the midst of the Bosnian and Rwandan tragedies -- we finally hear the good news. There is a cure for prejudice. It's wonderfully simple: put people on the Internet, and their prejudices will simply disappear.

    This gospel may be the single, most universally preached sermon on the Internet today. The "liberating power of anonymity," so the doctrine runs, will triumph over prejudice. Unable to observe your age, race, gender, or physical handicap across the Net, I will not be unreasonably bothered by such irrelevant traits. I am freed to honor your real self.

    The doctrine is false. Crushingly, self-evidently, dangerously false. I do not conquer my prejudices against foreigners by putting all foreignness out of sight. The things I prefer to keep out of sight are, in fact, the things that will subsequently rule me most effectively from my subconscious.

    The roots of prejudice lie in the human being and cannot be eradicated with a trick of technology. Certainly we cannot be more fully human toward each other by being less human, less there, less in view.

    Moreover, we discriminate against each other quite as easily on the basis of belief and other intangibles as on the basis of appearance. As long as anything of the person remains, there's something to discriminate against. If prejudice easily "disappears" across the Net, it is because the person himself easily disappears.

    But getting rid of the other person in this way begins to sound suspiciously like "termination with extreme prejudice."

    The difficult truth of the matter is that we cannot overcome prejudice except by overcoming prejudice. Putting temptation out of sight may be the most prejudicial action of all. If I would accept the other person, I must accept him in all his particularity.

    I rise above the external, not by ignoring it, but by reading it. This is true in all things. The color and shapes of ink upon the book's page fall from consciousness only when I grasp their meaning as text. The outer forms then express a world of inner significances.

    In the same way, a friend's face leads me on an inward journey toward his true self. How else can I know him, except through some sort of physical expression? But I must learn to look through this surface, and with its indispensable help discover the one who is expressing himself.

    In other words, I transcend his external features if, accepting them, I make a revelation of them. Only when I grasp the inner life of a revelation does its outer husk drop away. I cannot ignore the ink on the page if I would read the words -- and yet, when I do read, it is no longer the ink I am aware of, but the thoughts and feelings expressed.

    When, on the other hand, I ignore the outer traits instead of reading them, I also ignore the person. But this is an insult. Moreover, the utter blank that results from my refusal to read cannot be sustained. I end up projecting my own subconscious upon it.

    The Jews of the Third Reich knew what it was to carry the hidden qualities of others. It would have been far better if the Nazis had really looked at the faces of the Jews. The faces might have been read, revealing the human beings within; the blank could only be projected upon.

    The infamous Net flame today betrays a similar refusal to see or engage the other person. More broadly, the entire culture of the Net, in trying to make a virtue out of blind disconnection, is sinking toward a kind of collective autism in which the darker powers of the human subconscious can find easiest release.

    But the extravagant nonsense about the liberating power of anonymity has at least this value: it alerts us to the dangers we're up against. The blankness of the Net, the distance between conversants, the shifting personas, the dizzying succession of far-flung connections, the pitifully narrow channel for shared activities -- perhaps even the hypnotic qualities of the computer screen itself -- all powerfully invite us to project ourselves into the electronic ether under the illusion that we are getting to know each other.

    One classic expression of psychological projection is head-over-heels infatuation. We need not be surprised, therefore, at the unsuppressed infatuational energy -- the downright frenzy -- amid which the Internet has burst upon the national scene over the past few years. It has not been a time of clear-sighted assessment.

    Yet, clear-sightedness is exactly what is being demanded of us. We must rise above the celebration of anonymity. We must reject the notion that there is a technological fix for prejudice. And above all we must find a way to rediscover and read fully embodied selves across the great gulf of the Net -- an accomplishment that has long been eluding us even in face-to-face contexts.

    The alternative is to treat each other like so many abstractions -- an alternative on vivid display in the prejudice-borne conflicts currently tearing our globe apart. Is it a coincidence that these conflicts have flared up so visibly just as the false gospel of Net- induced brotherhood was gaining sway? Or does the same, blind inattention to the concrete presence of our fellows underlie both the gospel and the warfare?

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Internet as Terminator :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/prejudice.html

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