Monday, April 29, 2013

One Click Away from the Profound and the Profane

“When the Internet first emerged and you had to connect via a modem, I used to urge that modems sold in America come with a warning label from the surgeon general, like cigarettes. It would read: ‘Attention: Judgment not included.’”     
--Thomas L. Friedman

Google the phrase “Boston Marathon Bombings” and that search engine delivers 366,000,000 results in .27 seconds.  Information about the event is all there. Heartbreaking tributes and fast breaking news, gory firsthand photos and chilling on the spot videos, websites claiming the bombs were actually planted in a government conspiracy, fringe radical blogs that applaud this act of terrorism. 

Click. You can buy a “Boston Strong” t-shirt.  Click. You’re confronted with photos of the Tsarnaev brothers, their mundane visages staring out from the screen in chilling normalcy. Click. There are the achingly sad photos of the four dead: Martin, Lingzi, Sean, Krystle. 

There is something amazing and bizarre about all the ways this story played and is playing out in cyberspace, in an unsettling mash up of all that is good and all that is bad and all that just is in this age of the Internet.  Of seemingly unlimited and immediate access to information.  Of folks like me who no longer depend upon old school media institutions like print or local television to bring me the news.  As cyber citizens we can now readily, easily, seamlessly seek out the news and then choose it for ourselves from a dizzying collection of millions of websites.      

So from the 15th forward, the TV in my house never went on, not once. The radio played a little.  But overwhelmingly, like so many other folks, I followed the story online, toggling between sites to glean the latest news as I switched between real time Twitter feeds, Facebook, the Drudge Report,, and a score of other news sites.  The newspapers which landed in my driveway that week are still unread, now packed away for history’s sake along with my 9/11 Boston Globes and New York Times. 

The First Amendment is on steroids in the digital age.  No corner of the world, no trivial or minute fact, no breaking news, no video or still image, nothing, it seems, is out of our reach as digital consumers of “truth”.  But in this unfathomable freedom and access to information, lies a dark side too. 

So if I want to see the horrifically graphic images of the bombing victims in the seconds after the blast I can do so. Click.  If I want to view over and over real time video from that day, see white puffs of shrapnel blast upward, hear the actual screams, watch the panic I can do so.  Click.  I can read about the young man from Saudi Arabia who was accused by cyber stalkers of being the bomber in the hours after the blast, even though he was innocent, even though he was hurt on Boylston Street. Click.   

As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote, “…the Internet is a digital river that carries incredible sources of wisdom and hate along the same current. It’s all there much information that has never been touched by an editor, a censor or a libel lawyer.”  Pre-Internet, someone else prepared information for our eyes and minds.  Filtered it. Censored it. Analyzed it.  Framed it.  Held things back. Consider the fact that during World War II, images of American dead and wounded rarely if ever appeared in the newspaper or in newsreels.  It was not until 1944 that Life Magazine was finally given permission by Uncle Sam to actually show a photo of a dead soldier.   

But not today. There’s no one out here in cyberspace to set the boundaries.  No digital Mom or Dad, no big brother government, no internet filtering software powerful enough to sift it all out.  It all flows along now in that digital river: the profound and the profane, the obscene and the ordinary, the factual and the fantasy.  In freedom we can find out about almost everything, anything.

So in that same human freedom it is now up to each of one of us, as free and unfettered consumers of information, to draw the lines in the worldwide Wild West web.  Courageous parents who declare “Enough is enough” and shut down their kids’ computers and cell phones and video games.  Trustworthy “old school” media like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio that do the hard and dogged work of quality journalism.  Religious faith that has been helping humans to set ethical and moral boundaries in life for thousands of years.  The wisdom of the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments never go out of style. 

Here’s the good news. Our freedom to know is the most powerful it has ever been in human history.  Here’s the bad news: our freedom to know is the most powerful it has ever been in human history.       




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