PJ Media

Will People Eventually Reject Technology?

As I drove home one recent evening, coasting in mild traffic on a major New York highway, I saw a man standing on one of the many overpasses. He had draped a banner over the side of the bridge, asking us commuters to “honk if you love freedom.” He stood behind this homemade display, his erect posture showing pride and confidence, and waved a large American flag.

I honked. This being 2015, I don’t expect the word “freedom” to bring out much more than quiet disdain from most people. But pride overtook my heart when, as I passed under this admirable if eccentric patriot, I heard a small chorus of car horns behind me.

Oh, how I needed to hear that! It’s been a rough year for the United States. I’ve noticed, on social media and elsewhere, that desperation is now the standard response to the news cycle. Perhaps it’s always been like that, but has it always been like that to this degree? Every one at every given time in history has thought their civilization was collapsing. But there is something about the Internet that makes it all seem more imminent.

I thought of the Internet’s toxicity recently as I watched Emma Sulkowicz’s latest experiment with her own vanity: a crude sex tape depicting a dramatized rape, posted on a website that assures us that what we see is not, in fact, a rape. Does this troubled young woman not realize that what you put on the Internet stays on the Internet, in one form or another, for the whole of existence?

Sulkowicz, as you know, is the defamation artist who ruined a fellow Columbia University student’s life by accusing him of raping her in 2012. Every dispassionate judge of the case, from the police to the university itself, decided it had no merit. This was no deterrent for Sulkowicz. As part of some bogus “visual arts” degree project, she lugged her mattress around campus to signify the emotional “weight” of the experience she was forced to carry with her.

Over at Breitbart.com, Milo Yiannopoulos has already given the film a thorough spanking. I can’t help but offer my own take. If you haven’t yet seen it, there’s no reason to do so. Allow me, your humble correspondent, to set the scene. With several cameras mounted in an unromantically lit Columbia dorm room, the sex tape begins with Sulkowicz stumbling over the threshold, accompanied by a rather porcine young gentleman whose face remains blurred throughout the encounter. They begin kissing and stripping.

Before taking to the bed — one notices the same standard-issue blue mattress our auteur used in her “performance art” — Sulkowicz very briefly and very awkwardly fellates her companion. From there it’s just a few minutes of mechanical thrusting. Sulkowicz moans and cries. The hirsute suitor pins her arms down and slaps her a few times; she asks for more. The Ivy League scholar finishes his business and promptly leaves. Our performance artist curls into a ball on her bed. Fin.

What exactly does this young woman intend to do with her life? If you owned a business, and Ms. Sulkowicz sent her C.V. across the transom in search of work, would you hire her? If entering her name in a search engine yields false accusations of sexual assault, rape-fetish sex tapes, and reams of law suits and depositions, can you imagine the sorts of risk calculations you’d make in your own mind? And by the way, what young man would agree to do a sex tape — and one that simulates a rape, to boot — with a young woman known nationally for lodging questionable accusations of rape?

The Internet has ceased to be a source of information, if it ever was one; it has become, or perhaps always was, a repository of human frailty. All the idiotic, venal, petty, bigoted, and base impulses we have are most easily coaxed out of us, recorded, and archived by electronic media. The worst of these impulses is the dopamine rush one gets from joining a braying mob and going after a social outlier…but don’t get me started on that one. This is where we are.

Though the Internet has been an important feature of our civilization for years, we are all still figuring out how to cope with its effect on our society, personal lives, and livelihoods. As technology improves, it presents us with new social and ethical problems, which we can never resolve before the new set of problems arrives. The backlog is now evident. At every level of our existence we are thinking about, and often despairing of, technology’s encroachment. You can, if you wish, dismiss this as the hand-wringing of Luddites, but we are still not any closer to answering these valid questions. Each week, for instance, a different writer warns about what automation will eventually do to the global economy, offering dark Victorian scenarios of mass unemployment. Entire industries are dying. Media companies still really don’t know how to make money in the Internet age, despite years of trying different models.
At a more personal level, people are now genuinely frightened of what social media could do to their lives. There is little room for error. An unfashionable view, a careless phrase, an interaction with the “wrong” person, a tasteless joke, a slip-up in politically correct terminology—all could mean consignment to the pile of the unemployed and unemployable. Do you think that Alberto Iber, the (former) principal of a high school in Miami, thought he’d lose his job simply for saying that a white police officer acted appropriately in a recent confrontation with a black teenager?
It’s a cyberwar all the way down. The People’s Republic of China now possesses the most intimate personal information about every employee of the U.S. federal government. Imagine what a hostile and ruthless foreign power could do with millions of Social Security numbers—not to mention detailed narratives of the employees’ personal lives, from past drug abuse to sordid sexual affairs, all contained within their security-clearance documentation.
If I were a futurist, I’d say it’s not unrealistic to think people will eventually reject technology to some degree. It will not be a wholesale rejection: We won’t go back to typewriters, but I think some reversion to old-fashioned or analog methods, for certain things, is at least conceivable. If not, we will likely see more of what happened in Europe last year, when the European Court of Justice ruled that those under its jurisdiction should have some power to conceal certain personally damaging items from search engines.
The genesis for the ruling was an old case involving a Spanish man whose property had been auctioned off to pay some debts. He got his financial affairs in order, but newspaper notices of the auction, complete with references to his embarrassing situation, remained searchable on Google. His name and reputation, then, were indelibly linked to his misfortune. He tried and failed to have the newspaper get rid of the notices. But the ECJ did allow that people could stop Google from linking to material that was “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.” This turgid, lawyerly language is nonetheless clear enough: what happens on the Internet does indeed stay on the Internet, but should it always be so? I can’t blame people for asking.