So, I’m back.
Back for 6 weeks already, in fact – how time flies – having spent an incredible summer with the family. I reflected on my own situation when I read this in the Guardian, Forget the balance, this is the merge, a slightly depressing article for a number of reasons: firstly its conclusions (there is no balance), but also its assumption that only mothers need to consider time with their children (to the Swedish resident, it’s clear that fathers and children need to prioritise time together just as much). Equally, those without children need their balance just as much, in order to grow as people.
Anyway, having spent several weeks largely away from screens (email, IRC… especially email), I felt refreshed. And I had to consider this when reading the miserable story of a wretch from Lancashire who was “trolling” the family of abducted, presumed murdered, schoolgirl April Jones.
How does someone sink so low? Well, people have always told sick jokes. Not everyone – certainly I’ve always been too squeamish – but many do. I tend to smile wanly, perhaps groan, to show I’m not amused but nor have I taken offense. After all, once chooses to take offense, doesn’t one?
No. Not always. Not entirely. Not when your daughter is missing, presumed murdered. You’d have to be absurdly tranquil not to take offense.
Those of us in the Internet industry talk of “disintermediation” as the malaise afflicting network operators, excluded from being able to offer differentiated value-add to their users. But the Internet disintermediates people too. One only has to read a comments thread on -and I’m going out on a limb here- just about any online forum to find deeply uncivil exchanges. People seem to delight in attacking each other online, and in hurting each others’ feelings. There is almost a sense of liberation for so-called trolls: this piece, “Meeting a troll…” is very instructive. The false sense of anonymity the Internet conveys allows people with limited imagination and empathy do very unpleasant things. I pity the person who behaved so vilely towards the family of April Jones: he isn’t a fully-formed person, or at least, is capable of behaving like he isn’t one. I’m sure he’s no parent himself. I’m equally sure he wouldn’t behave like that in the company of that poor family.
But then, this isn’t just an Internet phenomenon. In the mid 1990s, the term “road-rage” was coined, describing how recklessly and aggressively people could behave in situations of stressful traffic. I’ve been a passenger in cars where the driver has “retaliated” for a perceived slight. I may even have quietly cursed under my breath at being cut up myself. Where does this come from? I’m sure studies have been done, but my jaded perspective identifies three causes: busier roads seems fairly obvious; a self-righteous egotism or sense of entitlement (think Gordon Gecko); and the simple fact of being in your own isolated environment. Or, as Gary Numan put it:
Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live.
Well, let me make my contribution:
Those of us in the industry need to pay attention to the harmful effects, the lack of humanity, that existence behind a screen can give rise to.