Observing the electronic machinations of modern life, I find it hard not to be thankful I was born into the last generation primitive enough to enjoy, at least for a short time, the cooling off period imposed by ink and paper. The Internet may have revolutionized communications in countless helpful ways, but it’s time to admit it has also sent politeness and civil discourse back to the Stone Age. At any given moment on any given day, millions of modern day cowards are spouting off electronically whilst believing in their heart of hearts they are the bravest boys and girls who ever lived.
How’d we get this far? Little more than a decade ago Black Francis broke up the seminal alternative rock band The Pixies via a terse fax to the other members. At the time this was looked upon by the Emily Post set as the equivalent of a bad manners Shock and Awe campaign. Nobody would bat an eyelash at such a move today. The question would probably be more along the lines of, “A fax? What? Was his Blackberry down?”
Now, as anyone who works in an office can attest, email has become a medium used in large part to promote, exacerbate, and perpetuate the pettiest fights imaginable. It is not uncommon for co-workers separated only by cubicle walls to shoot off snide messages to one another that they lack the intestinal fortitude to convey in the physical world. Instead, they hit the send button and skulk off to an early lunch for maximum dramatic effect. I now know more people who have quit their jobs with an email than those who have taken the long walk down the hall to deliver the message to the boss’s face.
These same sorts of unnecessary conflagrations are breaking out among family members, friends, and lovers as well. Waiting for the high-speed Internet to be connected in my apartment a few months ago, I spent a fair amount of time in a local Internet cafe, where I one day overheard a twenty-something young woman and her friend discuss how to best dispatch her boyfriend of six months — without actually speaking to him, of course. Moments later the electronic missive had pulled out onto the Information Superdriveway from which it could never be retrieved. Who knows where the poor sap was when the word came in?
At first blush, this may seem simply like a new way of conducting old battles. On closer examination, it is the absolute opposite of what was depicted in You’ve Got Mail — wherein Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were cold and sarcastic in real life while warm love bloomed online. The paradigm of what is acceptable within our social relations in the post-Internet Revolution era is shifting — and not always for the better.
DIRECT COMMUNICATION DETERS the great mass of civilized society from participating in such petty rudeness. For example, it is outrageous to most of us when someone is wantonly cruel to, say, a supermarket clerk. Likewise, no matter how angry we are with someone we love, it takes a fairly dramatic situation for us to unload on them in person or while listening to their voice on the phone. In the brave new world of electronic communication, participants seem to have been absolved of any need to act within the boundaries of such social mores. Anything goes, everything escalates, and a sort of numbness takes over.
Between strangers, the phenomenon only intensifies. In my time as a journalist, I’ve probably received a few dozen pieces of snail mail, along with a phone call or two, about my various meanderings. Blustery, tough emails demeaning me personally, however, come in by the hundreds. In my trailer park of yore, this sort of posturing would have been punctuated with a fist rather than a period, and so people did not address people in this sort of way unless they were ready to put up.
Thus, the Internet generation is inherently cowardly. Online, people are using the language of confrontation without having to take responsibility for the consequences such rhetoric normally carries with it — and not just with regard to physical violence. The emotional consequences of unpleasant communication — tears, anger, verbal retaliation — are also conveniently left by the wayside. When one does not have to face the repercussions of personal behavior there is little incentive to improve it.
It would be difficult for anyone to say the Internet hasn’t improved their life in some way or another. But it has also enabled the worst sort of crass, immediate emotionalism and senseless beating-of-the-chest posturing, the full effect of which it will take many years yet to measure.