If You Had a Big Red Button That Would Destroy the Internet, Would You Press It?
I’ve never understood those who take a principial objection to hypothetical questions. “I make it a point never to answer hypotheticals” they tell me. Really? The truth is I actually have no such button. But it is helpful to consider what I might do if I did. I know what I’d do first—wrestle with whether to push the button. That is, I suspect it would be something of a close call. Because, naturally, there are good things and bad things that come with the internet. That doesn’t make it, however, neutral. It makes it good and bad. Ironically, often its strengths and weaknesses are one and the same.
Take, for instance, the democratic element of the internet. Time was not so long ago that if one wanted to reach a large audience with one’s thoughts, options were limited, and came equipped with high bars. There were gatekeepers in the press, in movies, music, and book publishing. You had to have a certain amount of talent, and a message that was both apt to appeal to a large audience, and yet not be utterly dull and hackneyed.
When the cultural elite guarded those gates, it was tough for new ideas to get through. Funny isn’t it that cultural hegemony first began to crack not with new internet technology, but old radio technology? When the AM band was all but abandoned thirty years ago, conservative talk moved right in and changed the face of radio.
The internet has still a lower bar. Now with a phone and a data plan one can share one’s thoughts with the world. When those thoughts are good thoughts—faithful to the Word, encouraging to the saints, honest and beautiful, that’s a good thing. When, however, those thoughts are born of anger and bitterness, when they are designed to tear down and destroy, that’s a bad thing.
As with old fashioned gossip, however, the weakness is not just with the one posting, but the one reading. I suspect that more damage is done by what we download than by what we upload. Which, happily, gives us an opportunity to use the internet for more good than bad. Some self-discipline goes a long way. I may be tempted to read about the sexual foibles of some reality star, but it will serve me no good. I may be tempted to sift through the amalgam of half-truths, imposed motives, and sneering snark at myexpastorkickspuppies.com, but it will serve me no good. I may be tempted to invest my day in scrolling through an endless supply of Dilbert cartoons, but it will serve me no good.
There is, however, even danger in the good. The internet allows us to cyber-connect with like-minded people all over the world. Which can all too easily because a faux substitute for a more healthy actual connection with my actual neighbors. Sometimes the easy good is the enemy of the hard best.
So would I destroy the internet if I could? I think not. I aspire instead to treat the internet like a spark plug wrench. This is a tool that is profoundly useful when changing spark plugs, but useful for nothing else, a tool that when not in use can stay in the bottom drawer of the tool chest. When the net was young we were so excited we weren’t on guard to her dangers. Now that she has been with us for half a generation, she has become merely normal, and so we still aren’t on our guard. My advice? Use with caution. Remember, it only takes a spark.