Saturday, March 31, 2007

Another Voice of Reason: Libby Purves

Libby Purves probably does not read this blog. My guess is that she is unaware of confused of calcutta and may not have heard of Kathy Sierra. Nevertheless, her TimesOnline column for March 27 demonstrated that she is willing to invest many of her cognitive cycles in the state of the world the Internet has made:

Kevin Whitrick is dead. He killed himself. That is real. His last companions were the “insult” chat room frequenters on Paltalk, some of whom goaded him on, apparently shouting abuse over microphones or the screen, saying “F****** do it, get it round your neck, for f***’s sake do it properly”. In a similar case in Arizona, Brandon Vedas took poison to jeers of “Eat more!”.

Most of the online mob were not monsters; most people are not monsters. But they felt safe in their anonymity and distance, and expressed shock when they realised that the suicides were genuine, typing anxiously: “Oh my God, this is serious . . . Is this real?” Personally, I hope that the detectives now searching for the Paltalk members manage to track them down, question them and if appropriate caution or charge them with incitement to suicide. That’ll answer their question: yes, mate, it was real.

In one of my confused of calcutta comments, I observed that a major consequence of the Kathy Sierra incident was the number of knee-jerk responses it invoked, particularly over the question of governance (both for and against the proposition). Ms. Purves is not one to jerk her knees. Rather, she is in the camp that tries to unravel complicated issues and has the luxury of using as much column space as the task demands. Here is the crux of her current thinking:

Even without such horrors, it is high time that we emerged from our internet infancy. The IT revolution has brought information and education, convenience and joy and fellowship, even wisdom. It is worth noting that if you Google “suicide” you first get pages of kindly websites pointing you towards help. The internet is not evil. We who use it daily — for everything from news and banking to cinema listings and tracing quotations from forgotten poets — quickly learn how to navigate around the piles of rubbish, the lurking fraudsters, the lies and malice and vapidity and perversion. It is a vast teeming city, and you can choose whether to frequent cathedrals, theatres and Parliament or just the brothels and public hangings.

But we should accept the same rules of morality and decorum that govern solid, daily life. If shouting “Go on, kill yourself” to a stranger is not acceptable in the street, it is not acceptable in a chat room. Similarly, we do not allow the pushing of unsolicited obscenities through letterboxes, and so should not tolerate the clogging-up of private, often heartfelt e-mail traffic with repeated shrieks of “Ejaculate like a porn star!”. If it is illegal to print malicious lies, equal sanctions should face those who put them online; if it is stupid to leave your credit cards in a café with the PIN on them, it is equally stupid to ignore computer security. Face it: the internet is real. It is not a holiday from normal human behaviour, just a useful extension of it.

We have not quite grasped this yet. Not only has the novelty of apparent anonymity made people behave cruelly in chat rooms, but the homeliness of the PC screen makes many of us almost criminally irresponsible about fraud. Fascinating figures from Get Safe Online and the BBC showed yesterday that fewer than half of us feel responsible for keeping our details safe, while a third consider it the bank’s or service provider’s job. One in five responds to spam messages — which explains why the rest of us still suffer them — one in six doesn’t even have a basic “firewall”. The Serious and Organised Crime Agency is tearing its hair out over our insouciant negligence.

This seems to be leading her to a middle path between my quest for a foundation of governance independent of any "official government structures" and J. P. Rangaswamy's "Getting Identity right" approach:

That sense of unreality has led to a lag in enforcement and — equally importantly, because the law cannot do everything — to a failure of conscience. The only area in which real concern is evident is child abuse. Elsewhere, both self-protection and self-control are lacking. The legal threats against the Mumsnet website by Gina Ford are particularly interesting. It is unfortunate, because Gina Ford is rich and irritating, and Mumsnet is a good site helping new mothers and should not be driven out of business. I hope they settle amicably. However, the chat room that caused her such offence is a classic example of people feeling they can say anything because “it’s only online”. Even though it was a joke (about her strapping babies to rockets and firing them at Lebanon) it was the culmination of tasteless, rude, unjustified statements about a woman whose only crime is to write humourless advice on letting babies cry. Mumsnet should have known better. It does now. I hope the lesson will not be the end of it.

I have not read any of Ms. Purves' other columns, so I do not know how much she has written about this particular issue. I hope she writes more. If enough of us take this conversation seriously, we may eventually find our way to a solution.

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