The jury in the Rutgers case got it wrong: It may be the Internet, not a stupid 20-year-old, that is ultimately responsible for the tragedy
The five New Jersey men and seven women who decided Dharun Ravi’s fate last Friday had compelling reasons to find him guilty of a hate crime. Here was a young man training a webcam on his roommate, live-streaming the roommate’s intercourse with another man, and using social media tools such as Twitter to advertise the video and invite his friends to watch. These actions drove the roommate, Tyler Clementi, to leap to his death off the George Washington Bridge, and they led the jury to hold Ravi responsible. Talking to the press shortly after the verdict was read, Marcellus A. McRae, a former federal prosecutor who has been following the case, stated that the decision was “a watershed moment, because it says youth is not immunity.”
It isn’t. But the Internet just might be: If the Rutgers case is a watershed moment, it’s because it forces us to come to terms with the implications of technology having grown faster and wilder than the social norms and the legal edicts designed to keep it—and us—in check.
A few vital caveats: There can be little doubt that homophobia played a considerable role in the events leading to Clementi’s death, a painful reminder that much public education is still needed before one’s sexual orientation is no longer considered something to gawk at, mock, or assail. And there can be no doubt that Ravi, like the rest of us mortals, possesses a sense of agency, and therefore could have, and should have, treated Clementi with the dignity and respect he so dearly deserved. But these key points aside, let us examine the environment that allowed this tragedy to take shape.
As a professor of digital media, I spend much time both researching our nascent modes of communication and observing young men and women interacting with, and through, them. I’m still a geek at heart—technology tends to make me giddy—but the more I think about it, the more things seem grim. Put bluntly, I believe that for all its many and undeniable advantages, the suite of media, technologies, and practices collectively known as Web 2.0 is facilitating a radical reimagining of what it means to be human, dimming the critical faculties, sanctioning speed over contemplation, and spawning a host of what could only be called nonpersons.
That’s not my term. It’s Jaron Lanier’s. A celebrated computer scientist and a founding father of virtual reality, Lanier gradually came to see the vicissitudes of technology as a spiraling dive into barbarity. The problem, he argued in his controversial manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, is that Facebook, Twitter, and the other platforms that govern and regulate so many of our exchanges with our fellow human beings are information systems, and as such they demand, well, information: favorite bands, lists of friends, quick posts, snapshots.
But information, Lanier observed, under-represents reality. We are more than lovers of Phish or graduates of Yale, more than that person tagged in that photo from last night’s party. We contain multitudes too complex for 140 characters to capture. And yet, in our zeal to catch up with our friends and with the times, we reduce ourselves to data. We are so thrilled with the opportunity to keep in touch with so many people with such speed and facility that we agree to limit our thoughts and our feelings to dispatches that are easy to categorize and store in the growing database that is the contemporary Internet. This, Lanier laments, is based on a “philosophical mistake,” the belief “that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”
Lanier is not alone in his critique. Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, has come to similar conclusions. An enthusiastic technophile, Turkle too took a turn for the dark in her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Conducting a staggering amount of ethnographic interviews with young users of technology, she reported on a generation accustomed to thinking of communication as a ceaseless flow in which meaning is tangential and identities blurred.
In 1862, Ulysses S. Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from his territory. Turns out, that was a good thing. Historian Jonathan Sarna explains.