The Lori Drew case has hit the media this week, and the reaction is fairly universal – how could a mother behave in such a shameless narcissistic evil manner to drive a young girl to suicide? The anonymous use of the Internet and MySpace to bully this child provides the techno-grist for over-the-top analysis by doyennes of housewife journalism like Judith Warner (admittedly, I do like her style) who draws rather shaky lines between this nasty criminal weirdo and “helicopter parents” who dote on their offspring. Unfortunately, this trivializes and distracts from the centerpiece of this drama. Powerful technology like the Internet can be used by amoral predators to hunt down victims as efficiently and rapidly as normal folks use it to hunt for the best HDTV bargain.
The “good old days” mantra (oh sure, bullying didn’t happen before the Internet? I’ve got a bridge to sell you too) that pops up during this public debate is relevant only in the sense that the way we interact in society is vastly changed and enhanced by technology. Social networks like MySpace and FaceBook and business networks like LinkedIn are poor substitutes for real friendship, collegiality and love. But what if you don’t have any real friendship, collegiality and love? For whatever reason one would prefer to choose (consumerism, individualism, globalism, …), these businesses would not exist and flourish economically if there weren’t so many isolated people out there looking for validation of self. While technology like the Internet facilitates new forms of social interaction, it is not the sole catalyst for such interaction. That responsibility lies within ourselves and the way we treat others in the real world.
The major lament about the Internet is that it has no “controls” to prevent criminal behavior. Consider that the Internet (Arpanet for those oldsters who remember) was designed at a time when networks were few and conduct was scrupulously monitored. In the 1970’s, I knew quite a few people who were very careful with their postings for fear of losing their prized university or corporate accounts. However, balancing this was the belief that academic freedom was equally important, and that disputed statements should be heard and debated – not suppressed – in other words “Cui peccare licet peccat minus” (Ovid).
But in the real world, we also view actions separately from words. When words are used to torment and destroy another person, it becomes a difficult matter of law. It forces us to look at our values and behavior. How many times have you, dear reader, met with a poison-pen email or posting notable only for its vacuous viciousness and then actually met the writer and found him or her indifferent or unaware of the venom dripping from the words? I actually have on occasion, and it is very disconcerting.
Anonymity on the Internet has always been a bit of a misnomer. The Internet provides for much better tracking and record-keeping than sending an old-fashioned letter and is far less regulated than phone conversations. Cookies and behavioral search give businesses like MySpace a “snapshot” on buying habits and trends worth billions of dollars. People who use these “free” services may believe they are “untraceable” but the entire focus of the business is one of tracing a caricature of the consumer. Identifying users in criminal or civil actions is simply incidental to their business, but as the RIAA actions demonstrate, the information is available.
DNA analysis has revolutionized identification of criminals, but that hasn’t stopped all crime. The same goes for Internet tracking. Technology changes, but the desire for justice is timeless.