Internet maintenance by moral police

As a new-media practitioner, my life is closely tied to technology. It’s my livelihood. My current job doesn’t exist without the World Wide Web and the Internet.
This is why it’s discouraging to know that my audience still only comprises 15 percent of this country’s population. A year ago it was only 10 percent. That’s an improvement, but the Web is far from being a true mass medium.
Why is this? The most obvious answer is cost: For best results, you need a computer ($1,500 – $3,000) and an Internet service provider ($20 a month). However, thanks to the recent rush for a more affordable “Info Appliance” such as WebTV, it will soon become less of a factor. Still, while I worry about not enough people accessing the Internet, many others worry about the opposite.
Pop culture reflects the deep fear many have of this type of technology playing too much a part in our lives. The traditional media reinforce stereotypes of people afflicted with “Internet addiction.” This plays into the growing angst about the charges that technology has ruined the ecosystem.
We also see pop culture images such as “Star Trek”‘s Borg — beings who live symbiotically with machines — that reflect our deepest fears about the Internet directly. One woman I know expressed this fear rather well when I made a joke about getting my vital systems “wired in” while I was at my job.
“I’m never letting anyone wire me into anything,” she said, almost snarling. She thought such a topic was not one to joke about, perceiving a real threat rather than an absurd musing.
Technology is nothing to fear. By itself, technology does nothing. If anything, it’s us who control the technology that should be feared. Without us, our machines lie dormant. With all due respect to James Cameron, we are far away from creating the self-aware technological monsters of his “Terminator” movies.
This fear of technology is purely irrational (then again, there is no such thing as rational fear). Irrationality comes from lack of knowledge. We fear what we do not understand, and a lot of people don’t know much about the Internet and how it works beyond what they see on the five o’clock news.
“Never before have so many known so little about so much,” said James Burke in one episode of his BBC documentary series “The Day the Universe Changed.”
Burke explained that the more our technology advances, the harder it is for everyone to keep up.
Auto mechanics deal with this problem of advancing technology every day. From navigational systems to anti-lock brakes, today’s cars have so many computerized implants that mechanics need to be part electrical engineer and part computer scientist.
Out of economic necessity, most mechanics now utilize computers in order to diagnose and repair problems with automobiles, but the switch from fearing technology to using technology wasn’t a smooth one.
In the 1974 book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by Robert M. Pirsig, the author writes about how his friend John Sutherland refuses to learn about motorcycle maintenance, opting instead to buy a brand-new motorcycle that should have no mechanical problems.
Eventually Sutherland’s bike does have problems, but whenever the more mechanically-minded narrator offers to explain how to fix it, Sutherland immediately shoos him away. He just wants the bike fixed and doesn’t want to hear about the actual process.
Those who passed the Communications Decency Amendment last year wanted to protect children from pornography on the Internet. They had good intentions, but they used little reason or foresight. Many of their actions can be traced to fear and ignorance of the Internet.
I’ve read this legislation about eight times. I’ve studied it and the issues surrounding the act since President Clinton signed it into law on Feb. 8, 1996. (The American Civil Liberties Union sued moments after the signing, and the law is still inactive because of pending litigation.)
This legislation is crap. I don’t pretend to be an expert on mass communication law, but any attorney who sends e-mail on a regular basis will tell you the same thing. Even Newt Gingrich, the epitome of conservatism, has said it’s a bad law. Yet the law has much support from the Christian Coalition and other such conservative and family values organizations.
Like the families who are concerned about their children, these groups may have good intentions, but they seem relatively ignorant about the Internet. They assume the Internet is like TV, where a broadcaster can push information about people across the airwaves. You can flip through the cable channels and unintentionally land on something offensive.
This doesn’t happen on the Internet. If you want to see pornography, you have to seek it out. They say if you don’t like what you see on TV, change the channel. I say, if you don’t like what you see on the Internet, stop looking for it.
Also, with high-cost barriers and a limited number of channels, broadcasting is an enormous task — making it easy to regulate. However, writing on the Internet is easy: Anyone can curse up a storm in an e-mail message (a violation of the Decency Act) and go by unnoticed. Because the Internet makes it so easy to post information to the world, this law would only be effective in suing a few people while letting the rest slip through the legal chasms created.
The best way yet known to keep your kids from viewing pornography is through screening software, such as NetNanny and SurfWatch. They are available free on the Internet and can prevent your children from accessing undesirable material.
Some of these (normally rational) people are so clueless about the Internet you could tell them CyberDingos have been stealing babies through computer screens and they’d fence off their monitors.
Ironically, by remaining ignorant of technology and allowing fear to control their judgment, these people are inadvertently making themselves slaves to it and those who control it. The fact is the more you know about something, the less likely you are to be misled.
This brings me to another point Pirsig made in his book. In one chapter, the narrator and Sutherland witness a group of farmers riding down the street of a rural town in North Dakota. With a brand new piece of farm equipment in hand, they tout their technology as if it were a gift from the gods. The narrator then realizes that these farmers, even though they exalt the technology that brought them the tractor, could exist just as well without it. On the other hand, Sutherland, who detests technology, could live the least without it. He does not understand it, and therefore could not reproduce its effects.
The narrator of that book, because he understands technology, can exist without it, because to him it is not a mystery, but a thing he controls and uses for specific purposes. He doesn’t fear it because he understands it.
If more concerned parents understood the Internet, they would realize their babies are safe from nighttime CyberDingo attacks. They’d probably sleep better, and so would I.

Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.