Andrew Ducker (andrewducker) wrote,
Andrew Ducker

Why does society seem to be falling apart, even though it's not?

Over on Andy Ducker's Links I linked to a story about Robin Williams' daughter leaving social networks because she was receiving abuse after her father died.

And got a reply that "Who the Hell does that?? Society is broken... Bleah."

Which, on the face of it, is a perfectly reasonable emotional reaction to have. I mean, how massive of an asshole do you have to be in order to send horrible images to someone whose father has just died?

To which, one answer is that the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory holds a fair bit of power. People don't think about their actions much, they forget that there's a real life person receiving these messages (or, at least, their caring is radically diminished by it), and so they don't restrain themselves from doing horrible things.

But I think this misses out a vital point - what it is that technology brings to the table, to wit: Leverage.

Every advance in technology has come into being because it allows us to do more with less. Militarily, we've gone from "Having to hit people with a fist" to "Waving a lump of wood/metal on the end of our arm to increase the damage" to "Launching projectiles through the magnifying power of compound bows" to "Launching huge projectiles by winding up siege weaponry" all the way to "Press a button and an area a few miles across gets burned to a crisp." - and this is repeated across every area that technology touches. Which is, nowadays, everything.

Every advance in technology allows us to do more with less, extending our reach further while allowing us to expend less energy*. Which means that the power that a deeply unpleasant person has to inflict emotional damage has also scaled up massively, and continues to do so. Twenty years ago, the chances of a random idiot being able to respond in any meaningful way to the death of a celebrity would be near zero. They'd be able to make a tasteless joke to their friends down the bar, which would be basically harmless, as it wouldn't affect any of the people who were emotionally connected to it. Nowadays they can use existing photos and frankly magical photo-editing software to produce horribly disturbing responses that they can then target at the people most likely to be horribly affected by it.

And it only takes a few people to do this for it to have a massive effect. Jezebel are having issues at the moment where trolls were posting GIFs of graphic rape scenes in the comments**. It doesn't take bumping into that more than a few times to push people away from a forum. And it only takes a few people doing it, in an automated fashion, for that to destroy a community.

The same is true in the case of Zelda Williams - she reports that _two_ people sent her horrible images. That's not many. She has 170,000 followers, so percentage wise that's waaaaay below the 4% of society estimated to be sociopathic***. But if you'd just received two horribly disturbing photos of your father's body, 48 hours after his death, that might drive you away too.

I don't have an answer for this. But I do know that if society is going to continue getting more and more connected that the companies who mediate it - whose technologies underly the communication between us all - are going to have to find ways to keeping the very few from spoiling it for the rest of us****.

*In a very real way this is epitomised by the events of of the eleventh of September 2001 - when a group of 19 people armed with knives were able to level a pair massive building, killing thousands immediately and cause massive upheaval to laws, diplomacy and political reality across the world. Without the planes they hijacked, they'd have been incapable of causing anywhere near that much damage. Heck, if we weren't living in an age where technology has made travel and communication so trivial there wouldn't have been an issue in the first place.
**SFW piece on it by the BBC here.
***Frankly, most sociopaths are far too busy running companies to be trolling the families of celebrities.
****By which I don't mean "Censoring opinions people don't like." There's a big difference between "You have an opinion I find appalling, which you are discussing with your friends." and "You have set out to cause other people to feel awful."

Original post on Dreamwidth - there are comment count unavailable comments there.
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