American society as a whole, and politics in particular, has become considerably ruder, cruder, and more paranoid than it used to be. Many factors have contributed to this latest round of cultural degeneration, but I think the Internet deserves to get more than a smidgen of the blame — and that’s a heck of a thing to say for a guy who is on the net incessantly because he makes a living as a professional blogger.
So why has the Internet so uniquely contributed to the deterioration of our society?
Well, you have individuals from all over the world who can talk anonymously to people with whom they have no personal connection, and they can say absolutely anything without fear of being punched in the nose. Put another way, the Internet takes away all the factors that keep people from saying the rude things that they may be thinking, but wouldn’t blurt out if they were face to face with another human being. On a more sinister note, the Internet allows misfits, sexual deviants, and sociopaths to form communities outside the mainstream where they can reinforce each others’ values. Instead of being a weirdo or loner that society may be able to cajole back towards normalcy through negative social reinforcement, everyone from pedophiles and conspiracy theorists to hackers and “I did it for the lulz” trolls can meet up with hundreds of like-minded souls on the net who tell them what they’re doing isn’t abnormal; to the contrary, it’s great!
That sort of compartmentalization is one of the reasons politics has become so ferociously partisan. On the Internet, people have broken up into small, like-minded groups where they have minimal contact with people who disagree with them. As a result, there is little pressure to show respect for the opinions of people who see the world differently — since those people are, for the most part, not present. It means that facts that run contrary to their ideology will tend to be viewed with suspicion at best and will be totally ignored at worst, thereby creating groupthink on a titanic scale.
This, along with a preponderance of short blog posts, pithy opinion, and quick videos, has helped to produce a “bumper sticker” mentality that is negatively impacting the decision-making capabilities of our body politic. Back in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had a series of famous debates in which both men spoke for an hour and a half each. Today, only 10% of people on the net will even watch an entertaining five-minute video all the way through. That’s problematic for our society because there are quite a few issues that simply cannot be adequately boiled down to a single slogan or sentence.
Here’s the thing about all these issues: many people act as if there is a clear delineation between “real life” and the “Internet,” but that’s simply not so. You don’t spend all day reading conspiracy websites and then forget about them when you go offline. You don’t read liberal blogs all day that refer to conservatives as Nazis and then wash that out of your brain at the end of the day. You’re not going to spend hours in online forums explaining why it’s fine to steal online music or hack into someone’s computer without having that affect the way you morally view other situations offline.
We have no trouble acknowledging the positive contributions the Internet makes to our culture and to politics. It has certainly enabled better policing of the mainstream media, led to more small donor fund raising, allowed people to connect with like-minded souls across the world, driven political activism, spurred innovation, and created trillions of dollars’ worth of new industry and commerce. However, we should be just as willing to admit the obvious — that the Internet is also the primary driver behind hyper-partisanship, has coarsened the culture, helped to mainstream perverse sexual content, widely spread paranoia and rumors, shortened attention spans, and helped eat away the shared culture that has helped to anchor Americans.
Can we reverse these trends and put the genie back in the bottle? Unfortunately, curing these problems would probably take a level of government intervention that would be worse than the disease, with one exception: the end of anonymity on the Internet. Although there would be negatives to that, it would also be the key to minimizing spam, hacking, fraud, and trolling. It would also help minimize the extraordinarily rude behavior that has become the rule, not the exception on the net.
All this is not to say that the Internet has been a negative or that it needs strict government control to continue to be useful. To the contrary, the Internet has been one of the most fantastic inventions in the history of mankind and the “Wild West” atmosphere on the net has been positive overall. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to the negative impact the Internet is having on our culture. The only way to counteract the damage the net is inflicting on our society is to acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place.