The Dark Side

I was recently happily surprised to see a US presidential candidate – any candidate would do – show an awareness of the nature of the new media environment created by the Internet and in particular its darker side. I ran into this exchange near the end of this Pajamas Media interview of John McCain by Roger Simon. Pretty well unprompted by Simon, McCain felt obliged to make this point:

But we face significant challenges. And that overall challenge right
now is radical Islamic extremism, which is hydra-headed. And I think
that challenge is going to be military, diplomatic, intelligence, and
ideological. We’ve got to do a better job in the use of cyber space.
Osama bin Laden, just in the last two weeks, has got messages out to
billions of people to recruit, motivate, and instruct radical Islamic

McLuhan says that it takes a long time for awareness of a new media environment to to enter general awareness. When Richard Landes put on his Media as a Theater of War conference in Israel in 2006 he found that bloggers were very aware that the media environment had shifted radically (they were living it) while Israeli politicians that attended were not. The politicians saw the world where the established media held absolute control of ‘the narrative’ as unchanged – they didn’t get it. Other candidates for the US presidency may get it too – I just haven’t heard them speak on the issue. If anyone has encountered this kind of insight into the media environment from other candidates please comment.

There is a second aspect that McCain points to that I think is extremely important – the negative potential of the networked media environment. Asked about the effect of the Net on radical Islam McCain responds:

That’s because they’re getting on the Internet, they’re getting — they’re feeding on each other. They’re getting a radical message from the Imams, and then this cyberspace is getting — is having significant effects. Look at the effect that it’s having on pedophiles. Internet child pornography is one of the greatest evils that is afflicting the world today, and it’s because of the Internet. So we’re going to have to understand this new technology and this new information world we’re in and do a lot better.

The man is clearly groping with the issue – trying to come to terms it, but he has gotten to the point where he is beginning to generalize – to see the larger pattern. I’m a technological optimist, but I know better. I naturally respond to Eric S Raymond’s explanation of why in some, not all, ways the open software development model (Linux) is more effective than the proprietary model used by Microsoft. But I know very well that the frustration that Bill Gates encounters when trying to compete with Linux arises from the same structural base (the Internet) as the West’s attempts to cope with the networked insurgency of al Qaeda or child pornographers. Or the dilemma faced by a friend recently who discovered his 12 year old daughter presenting herself as an 18 year old on multiple Facebook and Myspace sites. The new media environment can be used for good or ill and I have no postmodern relativist compunctions in seeing some of those uses as clear evils. It is perhaps instructive to note that Carl Jung would be utterly unsurprised to see the human shadow alive and well on the Internet. Or that a student of literature like McLuhan would point out that these negative aspects of human nature have been explored in Western literature going back to the Iliad.

It seems to me that a useful theory of media has to explain the dark side of new media environments as well as the positive side in the broadest possible terms. Last night my son was talking about the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. He talked about how technological optimism got out of control and created the Web 1.0 tech bubble, but that now instead of public companies with no absolutely understanding of how to make money crashing we have privately held companies with better business plans but still vulnerable to over optimism and self delusion. He thinks that we could be seeing dot bomb 2.0 in the making. Perhaps or perhaps not, but the human forces set lose are recognizably the same ones that fueled the Dutch Tulip craze in the 17th century just as the 13th century Children’s Crusade should tell us something about the contemporary Muslims who think it is an act of high morality to throw away a medical education trying to blow up an airport.

Crossposted at Newmediatheory

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