Commentary: This week I write in a café, a time-honored space for people to connect over coffee, read news or literature, talk shop or debate politics, art, popular trends and whatnot. As I survey the room, however, there are no conversations taking place. One hundred percent of the inhabitants have their attention on electronic devices (including me on my laptop).
The internet is for porn, so the old joke goes, but it serves a deeper, darker delight, as numerous psychological studies have shown. The internet is a vehicle for being rude to strangers; and not stopping there, but to bully and intimidate them. To the extent the joy derived from casual sadism is pornographic, I suppose the prior statement holds.
It is presumably not news to any reader in 2019 that social media platforms are perfectly arranged as arenas not for gentle discourse but for venting disdain, savaging people personally rather than refuting their opinions or challenging their ideas. For this, we are rewarded with “likes” and emojis, functioning as dopamine switches exerting an ever-tightening grip, or we are punished with opprobrium and barracking.\
Nor is it novel to point out that people tend to behave differently online than they do among persons. Although anonymity contributes to the disinhibition with which people conduct themselves, they are also quite happy to make hurtful statements under their own names.
The previous reference to sadism is not hyperbolic, when it comes to so-called internet trolls and cyber-stalkers. A 2014 study found that “trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores.”
(Poor Machiavelli, to have his name appropriated by psychologists to label a personality type associated with amoral self-interest, duplicitous and manipulative behavior. Take his political advice or leave it, the man is seldom read and now eponymous with a personality disorder. How uncivil.)
Rudeness is also contagious, encouraging "payback" behaviors in workplaces as well as social media, and the concern is not merely sentimental. This has poisonous effects on brain health, impacting the locations that hold memories, support concentration and govern executive function.
In yet another study, researchers at the University of Haifa found that a lack of eye contact was the major contributor to anti-social behavior in online chats, accompanied by the covers of invisibility and anonymous identity.
Are we truly free? How do we know?
In these imaginary spaces where we human beings spend more of our time we can be unseen by others and shielded from their faces, comfortably unaware of the impact of our comments. One more piece, completing a toxic triangle, is the lack of our own eye on ourselves.
This is not merely “disinhibition,” but a lack of freedom.
The American idea is that we are born free and yet the notions of freedom prevalent in our culture are strikingly immature and, well, slavish.
How many of us express our own thoughts and do what we actually want to do, or even know what we want, in those moments we are not working lengthening hours for eroding wages? As we roll about in our addictions to nicotine, alcohol, television, consumer goods and, again, porn, venting hostility on strangers in between and during these pastimes, where is the free person?
Yes, we still enjoy some formal freedoms in the midst of our disease. There are few legal constraints on what our “free people” may express, or how they express it 24 hours a day in this never-sleeping digital café.
However, the impulsive rage and contempt, the bullying that is unchastened even by fatal consequences (as when child suicide follows bullying), the diminished capacity to evaluate and debate even simple arguments or shared values bode ill for personal and moral freedom alike.
Algernon D'Ammassa is Desert Sage. Share your freest thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.