The global village
was much touted back in the 60s and 70s. Better knowledge of our neighbours, countrypersons and those of other nations was supposed eventually to bring about unity, prosperity and a great love-in. The Spy has noted before in this space that his own prediction back in the day was quite the opposite, that the better we knew each other in an information age, the larger the divisions and even hatreds would likely become. He might today revise this to add “and the more misinformation would be believed.”
The closing month of a annus horribilis 2020 is a good time to reflect on where our technology has taken us socially–not a good place.
The Internet has become an echo chamber
where people of disparate views tune in only to those of the same (not just similar) outlooks and beliefs. This has pretty much always been true in politics and religion, and there were old sayings to the effect the two should not be mixed and that neither should be discussed in polite society–perhaps it was for good perceived reasons, even though the reasoning itself is not sound. The two have to be discussed–but can such discussions not be held in a civil manner rather than by shouting slogans past one another.
One part of the problem is that electronic conversations tend to be brief, and brevity is hard to nuance. People react harshly to and seethe over content they believe they perceive in an email, post, or tweet, and there is little that can be done in subsequent messaging by the same means to ameliorate the initial bad impression. For some people all one has to do is open one’s metaphorical mouth electronically and the recipient will take serious offence at things that were never mentioned or even imagined.
Another part is the modern radical individualism that has infected our society. “Nobody can tell me what I should do (or think or believe).” On the Internet, support can be found for nearly any idea, and apparently the more bizarre the better when it comes to finding at least a handful of rabid followers.
And, while the Spy is no fan of the term :fake news” he does observe far too much sloppy reporting in the endless search for the controversial headlines that sell more papers. “Journalists” tend to engage in their own echoing of one another, so that many outlets are quite politicized in one direction or another.
One of the earliest uses of the Internet
was the dissemination of pornography, which quickly expanded to child porn and like deviance. Of like kind are the racist, sexist, and assorted other hatreds of “the other” for such trivial reasons as their appearance or background. The porn is not as intrusive as it once was–the Spy supposes it is still out there but that one must now intentionally search for it. Still, he has his email set never to display anything but text unless he explicitly requests it.
Yet another use was and is the proliferation of the “black hat” mentality–breaking in to others’ computer-resident data to steal money, mailing lists, or sensitive information either just to prove they can, to blackmail the victim, or to encrypt and hold their data for ransom. Sigh. The Spy recently had to cancel his main credit card after someone bought meals on it in San Francisco–a city he has not visited for six years.
Backups of data in secure locations were always the right way to go, but they take on added importance in these lawless times. Oh, and one should never foolishly imagine that e-mail is private. It most certainly is not. Neither is just about any other information about one. Test it out. Run for office, and discover how everything about you is suddenly public knowledge, whether true or false.
The Internet widely seeds “secret” conspiracy theories
though if their believers were to self-reflect they might realize that there are very few like people in the world with the capacity to gather and command a group of more than one or two fellow conspirators. And, isn’t it illogical to talk about secret conspiracies or secret agendas? After all, the true believers claim to know about them, so they are scarcely “secret” secrets, are they?
Never was this more apparent than in the recent American election, where despite no evidence to put in front of the courts, people defiantly believed wild unsubstantiated rumours of massive fraud–just because someone said so. Now, to be sure, the Spy’s igloo is situated here in Canada, where the political divisions are not quite as deep and virulent (yet), but the Spy has scrutineered (poll watched) for numerous elections, has seen tens of thousands of ballots cast, and has yet to witness a single instance of even mildly suspicious behaviour on the part of voters, officials, or other scrutineers. Oh, he has heard claims, always concerning some “elsewhere”, but never a once accompanied by a shred of factual evidence. Perhaps one or two votes are fraudulent somewhere, but he doubts there has been an election, at least in North America, where the outcome was fraudulently obtained by widespread cheating.
Of course one must add to that the aliens among us, UFOs that the government keeps secret (see about secrets that are not above), abductions, chemicals in the food and any number of people conspiring to “get” us (whatever that means). Even here in Canada one recent election was tainted by egregious and unsupported claims that an opposing political party had a “secret agenda”. Really? Show me the secret.
Perhaps the mother of all fraud is the claim that COVID doesn’t exist, or is nothing but a mild flu. ‘Course flu itself has been pandemic at time, and one of the Spy’s cousins died of in in his High School days, but this disease is more contagious and far more deadly. Yet there are daily health stories of dying patients begging with their last breath for some another diagnosis because they cannot believe COVID is anything but a fraud toward a political grab for power, so they cannot have it. Worse still are the ones that write it off as a “geezer eraser” because the median age for deaths is about 85. Compassion anyone? Or will one of the young and defiant bucks be the next superspreader to single-breathedly wipe out an entire seniors’ home?
But even government officials in possession of all the scientific evidence around this deadly killer seem prepared to turn a blind eye as it suits them. In this jurisdiction, universities are operating nearly entirely online and churches are closed while the bars and K-12 schools are open. This makes sense to someone? Perhaps, if viewed to some extent in the light of who pays taxes and who does not. Shut ‘er down tight for three weeks to buy time.
Ah, but the vaccine
will save us all, touts the media, government, health officials, and especially the pharmaceutical companies already planning their next dividend rollout.
Not so fast. What about the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists. Some years ago a paper was published in Lancet purporting to show a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The work behind the paper was improperly conducted using an uncontrolled design on a sample size far too small to draw any conclusions and could never be duplicated by anyone, so the paper was eventually repudiated and the jJournal ultimately issued an apology for publishing it.
But the damage was done. The false conclusion of the original paper is still widely believed despite being completely discredited as illegitimate. The result: outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough. How soon people forget the days of killer diseases like those, plus smallpox, polio, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and the like. In the early part of the last century whole villages sometimes vanished from the map due to polio. When we lined up in grade five for a sugar cube infused with a few drops of pink liquid we told each other in tears “we’re not all going to die after all.” That same year, yours truly almost did die–of the mumps.
How soon a generation forgets. The science is obvious and clear. Vaccines save lives–by the millions. But, thanks to the Internet’s fraudulent echo chambers, a significant number of people do not credit the truth. So the question is not whether or when we will get a vaccine, it is whether enough people will receive it to stop this deadly pandemic?
There are other kinds of denials
and they are as invidious as the health ones in their own way. One issue is the attacks on free speech–either by shouting down people with whom one disagrees politically, or by abusing the right in order to incite violence against others, and this too is technology-facilitated. On the one hand, too many institutions are so entrenched in one political sphere that their self-imprisoned inmates can successfully prevent any other views from being heard, thus saving themselves the trouble of shouting them down if they were to arrive. On the other hand, too many abuse the privilege of free speech to spout abusive and even deadly hatred at “the other”–whoever they may deem to be inferior, the enemy, the “Secret” conspirator, the mask wearer in the time of epidemic, etc. How is any of this democratic? civil?
Whither the Fourth Civilization?
In the light of how so many of us have turned information enabling technology into a spreader of darkness more than light, we need to ask our collective selves what part we can play in creating a more civil, responsible, and wholesome society to succeed that of the Industrial Age. Or would we rather use all this technology to self destruct? Perhaps we have discovered the answer to the Fermi paradox after all. Perhaps, Pogo-like, we have discovered the enemy and he is us.
The latest word on the cancer saga
is somewhat less encouraging this month. Although Joyce’s CA-125 marker is down by more than 1800 points from the first reading, the side-effects are increasing, the tumours are not shrinking, and surgery may not be an option after all. Our encouragement still derives in part from those who share meals, electronic visits, and prayer, and in the whole from our sure knowledge that God entirely controls both life and death. Would that we would yield control of the technology he has allowed us to develop so as to put it to better uses. Any chance a year from now that we will have solved COVID and can put health resources into defeating cancer? Or do the deniers claim it too does not exist?
See you all again next month, DV.
–The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fiftieth year as a high school and university teacher in 2020. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972.
URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises:
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
opundo : http://opundo.com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books:
Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca
Publisher’s Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html
The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html
Other URLs of relevant interest:
BC Government COVID site: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19
TWU COVID Info: https://www.twu.ca/covid-19-information