The Toxic Internet

A long-time online friend of mine is leaving Facebook because she’s tired of the toxicity there, among other things. I know what she’s talking about because those there who don’t like your point of view often respond with abusive comments and nasty threats.

My parents used to tell me that if a comment wasn’t inappropriate for the family dinner table, I shouldn’t say it.

Since I still believe that, I notice the toxic comments and slanders that are commonplace on Facebook, the comments sections following news stories on some media sites, and (of course) Twitter. I keep hoping that the people who are talking trash are in a minority, that–as some people say–“the crazies are the only ones who bother to comment” on news stories, posts, and tweets.

What do you think? Are polite, normal, well-spoken people leaving Facebook like my friend, possibly staying but staying out of the crazy threads, or are people in general turning into rude approximations of themselves via online anonymity?

Even though I’ve been online since the CompuServe days, I’m still surprised at the number of people who are willing to say, “Malcolm, you’re a naive piece of shit” in response to my low key comment. What’s that about? People who don’t know me have accused me online of all sorts of things, and I wonder what kind of gall it takes to say such things.

I see the toxicity my friend sees, but I guess I’m being expedient when I say that since I’m a writer, I need to have an online presence. So I stay. I hope that most people online are good people and fight against the toxic comments or find ways to stay out of trouble. Perhaps I am naive because I think that when good people are quiet the bad people end up owning the place.

Malcolm

 

Are we suffocating beneath a deluge of Internet drivel?

“Suddenly thanks to Google Books, JS-TOR and the like, all the great thinkers of all the civilizations past and present are one or two clicks away. The great library of Alexandria, nexus of all the learning of the ancient world that burned to the ground, has risen from the ashes online. And yet—here is the paradox—the wisdom of the ages is in some ways more distant and difficult to find than ever, buried like lost treasure  beneath a fathomless ocean of online ignorance and trivia that makes what is worthy and timeless more inaccessible than ever.” – Ron Rosenbaum, “The Last Renaissance Man,” a feature in “Smithsonian Magazine” about Lewis Lapham of “Lapham’s Quarterly”

Search Engine

Men my age are often called curmudgeons because we decry the best of the past that often is, or appears to be, lost to us.

As a journalist and writer, I wonder what happened to objective news. (Yahoo even cites personal opinion blogs as news sources.) As a grocery shopper, I wonder why I can no longer buy Winesap apples at the grocery store. As a movie viewer, I wonder why–after all the years when movie screens and TVs were getting larger and easier to see, the “in” thing now is to watch movies on screens the size of a postage stamp on one’s cell phone.  And, as an author, I wonder why rants on Amazon are considered “reviews.”

Nonetheless, I think Lewis Lapham might well be right when he suggests that the Internet is “decapitating our culture, trading the ideas of some 3,000 years of civilization for…BuzzFeed.”

On any given day, the Yahoo “news” main story is more likely to be about either the jaw-dropping dress or the hideous fashion blunder of an actress than a news story about anything that remotely matters.

Why is this?

There are a lot of usual suspects…parents “rearing children” to believe they are entitled to everything free or almost free…the whole “teach the test” approach to education…liberal arts colleges giving way to colleges that offer direct training for one industry or another…Twitter and other nasty sites that champion having a short attention span…something in the drinking water…deadly rays from cell phones…and, perhaps, various forms of self-centered greed.

Take your pick.

Half Empty or Half Full

When asked whether a glass is half empty or half full, positive people supposedly say it’s half full. That beats empty. On the other hand, perhaps the correct answer is the glass is larger than necessary, rather like using a gallon jar for a task requiring a thimble.

We can see the drivel all too easily. On the other hand, we can tune it out. The Internet is far too large to contain only what each of us wants. Whether we see the amount of drivel as information democracy or an unlimited smorgasbord, the challenge is finding better ways to tell the drivel sites from the trash sites, and to discover new ways of finding the hidden gems.

For every one hundred people who appear on Leno’s “Jay Walking”  bits in which he asks everyday people simple questions about history, geography and culture who can’t tell us the capital of their own state, there are (hopefully) five people who knew all the answers but didn’t make the show because correct answers aren’t funny. (I wonder why the incorrect answers are funny.) I’m not sure the amount of drivel in the world is increasing but rather that it’s more visible with the Internet, more TV channels, 14-hour news, and the social media.

On its “about us” page, Lapham’s Quarterly says it, “embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—War, Religion, Money, Medicine, Nature, Crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past. Valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete.”

I find many treasures on the Internet. Finding them is, at times, like going to a garage sale and looking through somebody else’s trash for something I will treasure. Finding one’s treasure has never been easy. Even before Gutenberg made the dissemination of the written word easier to do when he introduced movable type about 1439, there was a lot of drivel in the world. It didn’t take long for people to decry books they thought were either hopeless or heretical.

When Newton Minnow told the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 that television was a “vast wasteland,” the notion that the drivel outweighed the most wonderful programs being produced wasn’t new.  Minnow suggested more government involvement in fixing the problem than I liked. It’s really difficult to force people to read only the best books and watch only the best movies and TV shows. It’s utterly impossible to say which books/films/shows those are.

In the half-full/half-empty glass puzzle, one can always begin with too small a glass, meaning that some of the water isn’t going to fit. Even though the too-large glass has a lot of air in it, there’s space available for whatever we want to add. Perhaps it’s more water. Perhaps it’s rocks. I like seeing empty space in a glass or on the Internet because that means there’s always room for more. If only 5% or 10% of that more is any good, we still end up with a greater number of tasty sips of water (or, perhaps, Scotch) than before.

There used to be a joke site or two claiming that “you have reached the end of the Internet,” meaning the last possible URL that was out there. Scary thought. In some ways, an online facility with more drivel also has more treasures. Each of us can decide which are which and how to tell the difference.

Malcolm

‘Internet Service Provider’ Cuts Old Line Before Activating New Line

Jefferson, Georgia, September 5, 2012—Never ask your Insane Service Provider (ISP) for whom the bell tolls. They’ll say, “Nobody, because the line is dead.”

In fact, the line is deader than King Tut, the dark ages, and Wells Fargo’s stage coach service between here and yonder.

When we asked Windstream why they de-activated the old DSL line at midnight when the new line wouldn’t be activated until a service technician stopped by our house 8-18 hours later, they had multiple answers: (a) because we can, (b) our DOS 3.0 computer doesn’t know what time it is, and (c) we didn’t want to enable your Internet addiction.

“Nonetheless,” they said, reading from a canned apology script, “your quality care technician is just about to get ready to head in your general direction via the westbound stage coach.”

I wondered about my e-mail messages while the stage was delayed while the driver changed horses in midstream.

As a novelist, my first thought was, “What if Hollywood sends me an e-mail asking if they can add more nude scenes to the upcoming blockbuster 3D IMAX epic ‘Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire’?”

As an ass-kicking reporter, my second thought was, “Without my highly dependable, accurate and objective Yahoo homepage, how am I going to know diddly squat about Prince Harry’s butt and the other asinine news of the day?”

Ever resourceful, I turned on the TV like I would have done in the 1950s when it still had a set of rabbit ears with tin foil streamers on top.

The Catastrophe News Network (CNN) was airing continuing coverage of a posse chasing a horse thief down County Road 1534 near Junction City, Texas. The Frantic Old Xanthippe (FOX) network was holding a séance with a panel of deceased 1930s mobsters about the value of legalizing Tommy guns in churches. The local random access channel was showing random re-runs of the “Newlywed Game.”

HOST BOB EUBANKS: “Bambi, if your new husband turned into a serial killer, would he track down your mother, your father or you ex-boyfriends first?”

BAMBI:  Hahahaha. Good golly, no, Bob. He’d start out with Wheaties and then attack my Frosted Flakes.

I considered making something up: “Enraged over Prince Harry’s butt on Great Britain’s new ‘Olympic Assets’ postage stamps, a horse thief in Junction City grabbed a Tommy gun and pumped a hundred rounds of hot lead into a box of Lucky Charms on the back of a stolen horse.”

But then, how could I live with myself, aping the techniques of my newspaper’s rivals at CNN and FOX?

I called Windstream a new minutes ago and, after pointing out that the latest ice age had come and gone since we last shot the breeze about our nonexistent DSL, I inquired about the location of “our” service technician.

“His horse was stolen by a desperado wielding a Tommy gun two miles west of Yonder,” the CSR said. “CNN, FOX, and Yahoo are already on the scene splashing fresh vids all around the Internet. Twitter is on fire about it. Oh, but then you couldn’t have known that.”

“You’re right as rain,” I said.

“One more thing,” he said.

“What?”

“Your inbox on our ten megabyte hard drive was overflowing, so we deleted everything. It was mostly spam, especially those fake Hollywood e-mails asking if you wanted to do any nude scenes with horses in a movie.”

“One day, humanity as we now understand it, will thank you,” I said as I reached for the flask of single malt Scotch in the Tommy gun drawer of my desk.

-30-

Jock Stewart

If your Internet Service Provider hasn’t capriciously turned off your DSL service today, you can be enjoying a darned inexpensive copy of “Jock Talks Satirical News” for only 99 cents in a matter of minutes or, otherwise, when pigs fly.

The Internet is Drugs

As I sit here in the sunny kitchen of my father-in-law’s farmhouse, I’m going through withdrawal because the Internet does not exist here. On a typical morning, I would have checked e-mail (pot), looked at several news screens (cocaine) and read everything in my Facebook (meth) news feed.

My Facebook status would be a no-brainer: blitzed, spaced out, and higher than the summit of Mount Everest. I recall those old, fried-egg-in-a-skillet public service announcements: This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

Ever addictive, the Internet provides 24/7 instant gratification. Everything is now and now we can trip out anywhere we want from the illusions of You Tube right now to the mirages of web cams. On celestial days, the endless supply of self-evident platitudes on Twitter (hash) empowers us. On tense days, we can discuss causes on Linked-In (ether) or play free-base flame wars in the comments sections of news pages and friends’ profile pages and hope the experience doesn’t turn into the bad trip of being unfriended or banned.

Here on the farm, life is also now, but it’s a slower, less ubiquitous now. I cannot move at light speed from the kitchen table to the creek. There’s no creek icon on the window. While I can randomly hear the sounds of birds and horses and tractors, they are farther away than MP3 files and have no volume controls. Time was, contentment was easy to find in a farm or old forest because when I arrived at such places, my perception synchronized itself with the rhythms of the real world.

Today, the worlds of beach, river and mountain top begin as cold-turkey experiences away from the lovable and addictive noise of radios, televisions, cell phones and WiFi. Real-world taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell and intuition have become dulled from lack of use. I can’t wrinkle my nose and download a new sight program nor stick out my tongue and update my tastes.

Daily, it takes more and more effort to see and hear the real world, especially the more subtle voices of trees and snakes and flowers. In fact, when I’m high on Facebook, I have my doubts about the existence of pastures outside my father-in-law’s sunny kitchen, much less the cries of gulls along the gulf coast or the songs of wolves in the Montana high country. The Internet will give me a semblance of all that. Truth be told, that semblance is faster and cheaper than walking out my front door and driving six hours south to Alligator Point, Florida, much less three days north by northwest to East Glacier, Montana on the edge of the shining mountains.

If the Internet existed here on the farm, I could experience, semblance-wise, the mountains and the sea right here, right now. I do see flowers blooming in the garden out past the kitchen sink. I remember once knowing what they were and what they smelled like but, without the Internet, I can’t “touch” the flowers’ images and see alt-text tags with that instant information.

The real world has become difficult to navigate and harder to imagine. I’ll be okay when I get back home and smoke a little e-mail and do a little Facebook. I’ll be fine because my brain will once again become part of the Internet and I won’t have any questions.

Malcolm