When people discuss the overall effects of the internet, they will weigh the good and the bad. On one side, they may mention how the web, along with talk radio, has broken the stranglehold over public opinion the mainstream media once enjoyed; on the other, they may cite the pernicious effects of pornography, cyber-bullying, or the loss of privacy. Whatever the analysis and verdict, though, they never truly capture how tangled a web we have woven. This is because seldom recognized is a simple and profound fact: The internet is one of the most powerful forces ever unleashed by mankind.
The (Mis-)Information Bomb
We have numerous sayings alluding to the power of ideas, such as "Knowledge is power," "The pen is mightier than the sword," and "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." And with modern forms of communication, such as radio and television -- and now the internet -- ideas can be transmitted at a rate unfathomable for most of man's existence.
This makes civilization very unstable. Think about it: For most of history, the only relatively quick way to change a society was through military conquest, such as when Islam's hordes turned North Africa Muslim within a century. Yet, using that as an example, what would have been the Moors' prospects for success had they been forced to rely on a few proselytizing imams and handwritten Korans to spread their message?
But with the modern ability to disseminate information at the touch of a button, the amount of peaceful social change that might have taken three hundred years to effect in the Middle Ages may be realized in only a decade today. So now a lie can get all the way around the world before the truth even knows the liar has logged on.
This phenomenon of rapid, haphazard change also widens generation gaps, as each generation grows up in a more radically different moral and social environment. And I should add that contrary to popular belief, a generation gap isn't inevitable. It develops only when the spirit of the age is constantly changing and, as a consequence, the young and old end up worshiping different ones. If, however, a culture safeguards tradition and insulates itself from competing ideas (a big "if," I know), everyone will occupy the same page. For example, I really cannot imagine that any ancient Aztec youth ever said, "No, Dad, I don't want to sacrifice a virgin to Quetzalcoatl today! And I don't believe in gods!"
Now, there are those who like to deny the negative effects of these media. For example, point out that gratuitous sex and violence on television have a corruptive effect, and excuses will fly. We may hear, "It's OK because it didn't cause me any problems," which is much like saying that "Being a long-time smoker hasn't hurt me" because you can't see your blackened lungs and aren't dead yet. Or we may hear, "It's the values taught by the parents that matter," which is much like saying it's of no consequence if strangers feed your children foxglove and arsenic as long as you make sure they have a good diet at home.
In reality, these are rationalizations, trotted out only when the onus is placed on something we hold dear. During moments of clarity, however, even the most ardent cultural apologist knows that entertainment influences thinking. If this isn't so, why was there a hue and cry to get "Amos & Andy" and other shows containing old stereotypes off the air?
Obviously, the examples people set for others matter, and this doesn't cease being the case simply because the behavior is observed via a screen as opposed to in person. So while we can argue about the magnitude of modern entertainment's effect, or about whether it's on balance good or bad, that it has an effect simply isn't disputable.
Beyond the Kinsey Reports
When people think of the internet's dark side, they invariably imagine pornography. And with smut available to even to ten-year-old fingers just a mouse-click away, its effect is profound. Yet, as with so many things, it isn't the obvious that has the most devastating impact. It's what remains mostly unmentioned.
Anyone who has posted on an internet message board knows how quickly interactions can sour. This is because the coldness and anonymity of the medium removes inhibitions and the incentive to be polite. That is to say, it's relatively hard to look into someone's eyes and be condescending, dismissive, or downright nasty, and not just because you have to worry about a punch in the mouth. But it happens as a matter of course when he is reduced to a screen name and bits and bytes, because he is then disassociated from his humanity.
This brings us to the most important point in this piece: This anonymity breeds not just nastiness, but also vulgarity and lewdness. Yet even this understates the problem, as, in reality, it destroys every wall of propriety that should exist among the family of man.
For example, go into many internet chatrooms and you will see new acquaintances making sexual comments to one another that, were they to have met in person, would never have passed their lips. And, even if they were both the Marquis de Sade reincarnated, they certainly wouldn't make them within earshot of a large group of strangers, or in front of children. Yet all in a chatroom, old or young, see these comments, these things formerly reserved for drunken midnight exchanges in seedy nightclubs.
The same is true of profanity. Not long ago, even rough-hewn dock workers guarded their tongues around children (and, a bit longer ago, around women). On the internet, however, posters will routinely pepper discussion threads with four-letter words. And while some children see this, few adults care, partially because no one sees the children. Their humanity and what remains of their innocence are hidden behind web handles.
This brings me to a tiresome cop-out. Many dismiss these concerns by saying, "Hey, kids have heard all these words, anyway." Yes, and children may know about murder and torture as well, but this doesn't justify inundating them with snuff films, does it? The reality is that such reasoning can be used to justify anything, which is why it justifies nothing. Of course children will, to an extent, be aware of evil, of bad behavior. But this is far different from the effect of normalizing it. And when adults use profanity routinely and cavalierly, normalization is precisely what occurs.
This effect of the internet goes far beyond profanity; it is nothing less than a revolution in the normalization of vice. It's much like the fraudulent Kinsey Reports' effect on sexuality. Many have pointed out that when these volumes were released and purported to show that deviant sexual behaviors were actually far more common than previously thought, it helped jump-start the sexual revolution. "After all," thought many, "if so many people are doing these things, why can't I give freer rein to my deeper, darker impulses?" Remember that "Everyone does it" is a very alluring excuse.
The internet is the Kinsey Reports to the 10th power. It is a realm in which dark urges and thoughts, formerly kept in the closet of the mind, are now displayed by millions for the world to see. And brotherhoods of evil can easily form, where deviants who otherwise would feel isolated and (rightly) abnormal can find refuge in an online community of sexually soulless mates. As a friend of mine put it, "Let's say you're a guy who likes five-year-old boys; well, now you can go on the internet and find ten thousand other guys who like five-year-old boys."
Yet even this doesn't tell the whole story, as this isn't just about emboldening perverts and justifying perversion. It is about making both far more common.
Many today like to behave as if sexuality is set in stone at birth, but this is ideologically driven silliness. In reality, human beings can be tempted to sin, indulge, and then develop habits. And as with the effects of television, we all understand the reality of this phenomenon when we're not busy trying to justify cherished sins. For example, when the matter is tobacco or alcohol, people will insist that manufacturers not target children with cigarette or alcohol advertising. They don't assume it's all meaningless because, heck, kids will just act in accordance with their natures anyway.
So it is with all vices -- including sexual ones. In the wrong environment, people may develop practices they otherwise wouldn't. And, as many civilizations have proven (the ancient Spartans had institutionalized pederasty in their military camps) cultures can create the wrong environment. The sexuality of man -- both of the individual and the group -- can be influenced...and twisted.
This is why C. S. Lewis said, "Sex is not messed up because it was put in the closet; it was put in the closet because it was messed up."
The internet throws the closet of man open in a way it has never been -- and never should be.
And it's no exaggeration to say that the demons released are destroying civilization. As British philosopher Edmund Burke warned, "It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters." The young today are immersed in a virtual world in which coarseness, nastiness, decadence, perversion, superficiality, egoism, and nihilism are the norm. They are instilled with moral relativism's only guide -- "If it feels good, do it" -- and then their feelings are twisted in the worst possible way, through vile entertainment, so that what feels good is cultural poison. The result is that we are breeding barbarians wholly incapable of sustaining a healthy constitutional republic.
If you have any doubt of this, I'll conclude with a rhetorical question: For whom do decadent people virtually always vote? Ah, it is indeed a tangled web we weave.