Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cultural Blindness

Yesterday I described us as a culture "in which we willing assume tighter and tighter blinders, not so much of our own invention but through acceptance of what the world is dishing out to us." In all fairness I suspect that one cannot have any culture without some commitment to such blinders. There is just too much content out there for us to perceive it all; and, since that content keeps getting generated, the blinders have to be supplemented with a faulty memory, as Clive James pointed out of Book TV yesterday in his "conversation" about his book Cultural Amnesia at the New York Public Library. However, just as the "knowledge movement" used to argue that it is important for businesses to "know what they do not know," we should at least admit that we have these blinders and faulty memory and recognize them for what they are.

This morning's entry at confused of calcutta began with a product of either blinders or faulty memory (if not both):

One of the more unusual things I’ve noticed about the blogosphere is the way that discrimination disappears.

This proposition seems to deny the possibility that the death threat against Kathy Sierra was an act of discriminatory rage, yet such a hypothesis may be one of the most consistent with the prevailing discussion of the lack (or denial) of a moral compass and the need for a civil code of conduct. What has been missing from the discussion, however, has been the underlying question of our own humanity (which occupied much of James' rambling remarks) or, in Nietzschean terminology, our "all-too-humanity." Like it or not, the Internet has provided a host of new opportunities for that all-too-humanity to surface, not only in the virtual world but also, as we recently saw in Canada, in the physical.

This leads me to reflect on the question of anonymity and the confused of calcutta proposal to do away with it "in the main." My strongest reaction has been to wonder, in the spirit of Clive James, to what extent the “cultural amnesia” of cyberspace has lost touch with the concept of samizdat. The good news is that it has a Wikipedia entry. However, even if this provides a useful account of the theory, in the world of practice, it is too easy for us to forget that there are people out there with important things to say who can only say them under the assurance of a well-maintained anonymity. I would not want to throw out those babies along with the bathwater of those who use their anonymity for brutally childish pursuits.

We would all like cyberspace to be a safer place. Hopefully, enough of us object to fascism being the price for that safety. We need a discussion that balances the blindness of optimism against the hopelessness of despair. Both are all-too-human traits that will never be eliminated. However, if we put off that discussion (just as most countries have put off discussion of global warming), cyberspace could easily spin into either an authoritarianism more oppressive than Stalin’s or a global village of street fighting bloodier than Deadwood! Who will rise to the need for reasoned discourse?

No comments: