Break the Chains 

How far removed are we from segregation in this country? On the day I was born in Atlanta, it was not possible for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant. That changed a few months later, so segregation was a reality within my lifetime. People of different races could not marry in most of the US. That changed a few years later between the years my brothers were born. While much of the stigma society imposed upon mixed marriages has lessened, there are still many people opposed to people of different races marrying. Given that it’s been more than forty years since the legal restrictions on mixed race marriage were removed without gaining full acceptance in society, one can assume those who supported legalization of same sex marriage still have a long road ahead of them, and will most likely never win total acceptance from every segment of the population.

One lingering problem within the United States is the institutionalized racism that exists at every level of society. The conservative right in this country has done an excellent job of conditioning citizens to equate the terms, “welfare”, “government assistance”, and “low income” with minorities. While it is true that a significant number of minority individuals are on public assistance, it is an unfair assumption to equate most people of a given race or ethnicity with low income or so-called “ghetto” conditions. The problem is that the attitude of many liberals is not much better, believing that minorities need public assistance because they can’t take care of themselves. Rather than arguing over the need for such safety nets, perhaps the politicians would be better advised to concentrate on the factors that lead to people requiring public assistance than debating whether or not assistance is needed. People will always have hard times, which require them to seek assistance from some outside source. Ironically, many people who oppose government programs, will gladly contribute to charities or church funds which benefit the same people they would deny food stamps or other government aid.

The term “welfare queen” has come to represent people milking public assistance while wearing expensive shoes and driving Cadillacs, but the term was originally used for a specific individual, a Chicago woman most commonly identified as Linda Taylor, whose crimes included, but were not limited to living high on the public dole. While the press in Chicago dubbed her the “Welfare Queen” and detailed her many frauds, it was candidate and future president Ronald Reagan who brought her to the attention of the larger public, thus politicizing her story. The term “welfare queens” is now racist code for minorities, particularly blacks, but the actual individual who inspired the term frequently lied about her race, and on her death certificate and census documents is listed as white.

White people, as a group, really don’t understand the problem of institutional racism, largely because we’re responsible for creating, maintaining, and benefiting from it. There are many aspects of life I take for granted, even though I grew up in a lower middle class setting. In most cases, when the police pull me over for a traffic offense, I don’t fear that the encounter could result in my death. In fact, my complaint with the police is often that they sometimes don’t seem responsive enough when something happens. I would not hesitate to contact them and while sometimes wary, I rarely fear encounters with them. I’m aware that many minorities do not have the same experiences or attitude, often with good reason. I’m more concerned that some deranged individual — with a high statistical probability that person is white — will open fire in some space I’m inhabiting than I fear an encounter with police.

I grew up in rather unique circumstances, namely, when I was around seven or eight years old, Atlanta experienced “white flight” when whites from the inner city moved to the suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett in response to blacks moving into their neighborhoods. In a relatively short amount of time, I went from being in the majority in my school to being in the minority. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was one of only five or six whites in either class, and below that, there were only four or five whites in the entire school, two of whom were my brothers. While this gave me some insight into how it felt to stand out in a group of people, and to experience hostility directed at me for no other reason than how I look, it did not cause me to experience what it’s like to be a minority twenty-four hours, seven days a week in the US. While blacks and whites can be equally racist on a personal level, it’s usually the whites who have the power and privilege of institutionalizing racism.

Large, well-funded organizations like the NAACP do a reasonable job of going after corporations or governmental institutions which foster institutionalized racism though it can be difficult to spot or prove. When the focus shifts from institutional to individual racism, the problem is a little more difficult to diagnose and correct. It is important to confront racism whenever encountered, but simply branding this individual or stand-alone organization racist doesn’t always accomplish anything constructive, and frequently leaves the target bitter and more entrenched in his or her racist attitudes. Individuals see little incentive to change when the organization to which one belongs or the company where one works fosters the same attitude.

The US has a long way to go in addressing racial disparities but we accomplish nothing by pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Too much hostility is directed at too many people and far too much blood has been spilled for us to turn a blind eye to what’s happening. Our leaders need to work on solutions rather than fanning the flames of racial hatred, as a certain candidate has been doing. We should applaud the efforts of those who are attempting to initiate a dialogue, but more importantly, we need to participate in the conversation.

Notes:

An article on the original Welfare Queen can be found at Slate.

Voices in Our Heads

voices_in_our_heads_graphic_06-28-16

Somewhere, out on the plains in Africa, just shortly after humans had learned to talk, a tribe got into some sort of trouble and all seemed bleak. Suddenly a man in the tribe heard the voice of his father, who had died years before, instructing him on what to do. He got everyone’s attention and commanded that they do exactly what he told them and by following the instructions he heard, saved his people from certain annihilation. When everyone was safe, he turned his eyes to the sky and said, “Thank you, father!” 

From then on he became the tribe’s counselor and every time the tribe was in trouble, he heard the same voice speaking to him. Sometimes he heard his mother’s voice, soothing him as she’d done when he was a child. As the tribe grew, others began hearing voices which sometimes led them in different directions from the rest. Over time, humans began to realize the voices weren’t coming from outside, but from inside their own heads. Combined with our capacity for memory, they formed the basis of our conscious minds.

I saw an experiment once where researchers were testing to see how much flight was ingrained in the instincts of birds. They placed food at the top of a ramp and a parrot at the bottom. The easiest thing the parrot could have done was fly up to get the food but the parrot walked instead. This led researchers to conclude flight was a recent innovation by birds that was not totally instinctive yet. Of course, this could vary from species to species. In the same way, conscious thought seems to be a recent acquisition by humans, and we’re still learning how best to utilize it.

In his work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes theorizes that early individuals heard auditory hallucinations originating from the developing cerebral cortex which they mistook for the voices of gods. They seemed to come during times of stress and frequently gave innovative solutions to problems encountered by those who heard them. Schizophrenics are a throwback to these early individuals, being unable to recognize the voices as products of their own minds.

The advantage humans have over other creatures is the ability to rationalize thought, to visualize potential outcomes, and to combine information from many different sources to create innovative solutions. Given this, many people still fall into rote patterns of behavior, acting as though their response to whatever the world throws at them is conditioned and beyond their control. Everyone has had a moment when he or she has reacted to a situation in an instinctive manner and quickly regretted doing so. Equally, people recognize certain patterns in their behavior which come into play in stressful or uncertain situations, even though they can often conceive other ways to respond. Creativity often involves listening to the voices in one’s head, sorting out inspiration from noise and acting upon whatever seems most promising, whether writing a paragraph, composing a song, or devising a plan for a more efficient workplace. 

Our intellects are constantly at odds with our instincts, which have the advantage of several billion years head start. We are aware of our instincts, but do not fully understand how they influence our day to day decision making as deeply rooted as they are into our behavior. Humans have shown they have the ability to override the instincts at times, such as when a person’s curiosity causes him or her to investigate some unusual phenomenon, without taking into account the potential danger involved. Unique situations often involve overcoming one’s fears or anxieties and often the reward is worth the risk. Still, despite the creative potential within each person, the number of truly innovative people seems relatively small, and frequently, the most creative are also the most ostracized in society.

The development of conscious thought is what ultimately separated humans from other species on the planet, and the ability to visualize unique solutions to life situations is our greatest strength. While there are other creatures, such as apes and some birds who have demonstrated self-awareness and are adept at creating and using tools, we’ve yet to encounter another species which displays the ability to conceptualize the future in the way we do. With this ability comes responsibility, however, and we should not ignore those voices in our heads which prompt us to follow our better nature. 

 

What Nature Intended 

Butterfly sculpture, Hapeville Train Depot Plaza, Hapeville, GA, artist unknown. Photographed 17 April 2016.

To someone trying to reason out why people behave the way they do, homosexuality may seem like an anomaly. Two men together or two women together cannot produce a child, and since the biological imperative for all creatures on earth seems to be to survive and procreate, homosexuality doesn’t appear to play a role in that. For someone who adheres to a philosophy which states that all life was fashioned in the image of a divine creator, people frequently come to the conclusion that homosexuality is against the design of this creator, and yet, humans are not the only species to exhibit homosexual behavior, we’re just the only ones who constantly obsess over it. Remove divine intent from the equation, and we’re still left with the quandary of figuring out what, if any, evolutionary function homosexuality serves. The problem is we’re most likely still overthinking it.

When discussing human behavior, particularly with regard to sexuality, one often speaks of “what nature intended”, and yet, we rarely speak of this when talking about other natural phenomena. If a region is hit by an earthquake or flood, the people there usually don’t interpret that as nature telling them they don’t belong there, though insurance companies might disagree. It’s only in the realm of human behavior that we assume some divine purpose underlies what we do. Trying to figure out why something happens is usually the first step in figuring out how to prevent something from happening, and more than a few people throughout the world would be happy if homosexuality could be eliminated. The question is why?

One cannot simply look at a person and know that person’s sexuality. Men and women who don’t meet society’s standards for masculinity and femininity still choose mates of the opposite sex, while people who conform to the behaviors assigned by society for that gender sometimes don’t. We have already had instances of very masculine male athletes coming out as gay, and feminine models and actresses announcing they’re lesbians. As homosexuality becomes less stigmatized in society, we’ll undoubtedly have more instances of this. We don’t even need high profile illustrations, since pretty much everyone knows someone they thought was or wasn’t gay up until the time that person started dating someone of the same or opposite sex. As with many things in nature, there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to it. It’s society and culture that typically complicates things and we’re responsible for developing and maintaining those.

In patriarchal societies, fathers or other male relatives choose how women will be joined with their mates, and often the strongest and most influential men get first choice, surprise, surprise. In much of nature, however, it’s the female of the species which makes that choice, and the males must put on elaborate displays to attract the attention of willing partners. If one sees a pair of red birds, for instance, the one most brilliantly arrayed is the male, and among songbirds, it’s often the males who sing elaborate songs in order to attract mates. In cultures which tend to be matriarchal, we also see this behavior in humans, males prancing and preening in makeup and brightly colored costumes to attract the attention of their intended brides. Given the vastly different roles played by males and females in reproduction, particularly with mammals, it makes more sense for the female to choose, since she’s taking the greater risk in getting pregnant. Even in patriarchal societies we see vestiges of this, fathers choosing their daughters’ husbands based on who will best provide for them, or which tribal alliances will best insure their survival.

So, what did nature intend in creating homosexuality? Most likely nothing. With regard to biology, nature is a usually a passive force which sometimes gives a species mutations that have no effect on survival unless conditions exist that make that mutation an advantage. The way a given species reproduces is the result of billions of years of evolution and the fact that different species have vastly different methods of reproduction suggests no specific plan was in place from the start. One might argue that homosexuality is one of the curbs nature puts in place to control population growth, but this ignores two important facts. First, the percentage of homosexuals in society appears to remain constant while the population gets larger. Second, and more importantly, people who are homosexual are still capable of having children. Neither the ability nor the desire to have children is affected by one’s sexual preference. True, there are many homosexuals who don’t want children, but there is probably an equal percentage of heterosexuals who also don’t want children. If there is a curb, it’s probably more the lack of desire to reproduce rather than the type of relationship one is in.

Societal prohibitions against homosexuals focus almost exclusively on male homosexuality. Leviticus 18 forbids men from having sex with other men and says nothing about women. It’s not until much later that admonitions for women were added to Jewish law. It’s likely the restriction was put in place because this was behavior observed in cultures with whom the ancient Israelites interacted. It’s known that the ancient Greeks practiced homosexuality, though the specific cultural context is probably lost to us today. It would seem then, that the prohibition has less to do with protecting families or society than with controlling a specific type of male behavior.

Throughout human populations, rape is often a powerful weapon employed in asserting control over other individuals or groups of people. Despite its sexual nature, rape is not about sex, but about demonstrating one’s dominance over another person. In Western society, males who are raped by other males carry a higher stigma than females who’ve been raped, and boys who’ve been sexually abused often receive more attention than girls. Aside from totally ignoring or flippantly dismissing rape allegations by women, authorities take male rape very seriously, believing it diminishes the man’s masculinity. One rarely hears someone dismiss allegations of rape by one man against another with the phrase, “Boys will be boys” though statistics from prisons and other male-dominated endeavors tell a different story. Despite the fear mongering by anti-gay activists, men who rape other men often do not identify as homosexuals, since, again, rape is not about sexuality, but control.

So, it seems the real culprit is not human sexuality, but the need by humans to exert control over others, and that is a perversion of the survival instinct, since those who control the resources have a better chance to survive than those who don’t. We see, in parts of Africa where water and other natural resources are scarce, the highest level of strife, as populations are constantly at odds to try to claim those resources. In the Balkans, while the Soviet Union was still in place, people of different ethnicities lived side by side with relatively little conflict, but once the stabilizing influence of an authoritarian regime was removed, ethnic cleansing soon followed. The challenge for us is not to eliminate homosexuality from existence, since its presence in and of itself has not proven detrimental to the health and welfare of a given society. Rather it’s to overcome the need for humans to exert dominance over their environment and fellow individuals, which has been shown to hinder growth and development, bringing about such atrocities as wartime sexual violence and genocide, and leading to such repressive regimes as Apartheid-era South Africa. Our focus, then, should not be on those who wish to lead contented lives with partners they desire, but rather those who’ll stop at nothing to prevent them.

Ecological Meltdown


We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds in the name of yesterday and in the name of God – The Eagles

The earth’s ecosystem didn’t pop up overnight. It has developed over billions of years, and humans have only been a part of it for a few hundred thousand at most. This has not stopped the human race from crowning itself masters of the world, and we’ve sanctified that mastery through the religions we create. Nature has a far better handle on how the world functions than we do, but rather than learn from nature, we have set ourselves in opposition to the natural world with disastrous results. We wipe out ecosystems and exterminate species with little or no regard to the role each plays in the environment.

If we destroy a species that serves a vital function in the ecosystem we’d better be prepared to take over that function or deal with the consequences. If we don’t understand what that function is, we need to do all we can to make sure that species is protected until we learn. Animals, who have just as much right to inhabit the planet as we do are disappearing at an alarming rate due to our oftentimes willful negligence. People  think nothing of killing an elephant just to make a few trinkets out of ivory and the rhino has nearly gone extinct because people believe its horn can be used as an aphrodisiac. For every person actively involved in trying to protect these creatures, there are many more trying to thwart these efforts, or turning a blind eye to the problem. Rather than try to preserve these creatures, we document their passage and invent reasons why they didn’t survive to justify our slaughter of them. 

The history of humanity is awash with our attempts to deal with problems we’ve created for ourselves. We lay claim to parcels of land, or wider territory and to defend those rights we’ve claimed for ourselves, we go to war and slaughter countless others. We indiscriminately dump our waste into the available waterways, then must pump the water full of chemicals to make it drinkable. We create materials that don’t biodegrade or are hazardous to health, then pollute the environment trying to dispose of it, further compromising the environment for other creatures living there. 

We need to stop feigning ignorance and start acting on what we’ve learned. Whether it’s religion or politics, we’ve become very adept at figuring out how to justify our destructive ways, in some cases making them desirable traits rather than negative behaviors that need to be corrected. We need to abandon our tribal mentally and start thinking globally, because otherwise, it will soon be our turn to face extinction. 

Existential Void

 Altered reality passageway 
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells the story that on his first day in a Nazi concentration camp, an older and more experienced prisoner pointed to him and, based on the older prisoner’s experience, said Frankl was the type who wouldn’t survive. Frankl did survive and one way he managed to keep going was to edit, in his head, a manuscript of his the Nazis had destroyed. Earlier, in Vienna, Frankl had noticed that there were lots of young, unemployed men hanging around getting into trouble. He organized volunteer groups to give the men something to accomplish, and most of the trouble stopped. The men still weren’t making money, but having a meaningful activity with which to occupy their time took their minds off the mischief they could be causing and gave them a sense of purpose.

From his work with the young men and into his experiences in the concentration camp, Frankl realized the human need for meaning and purpose, something he termed the “will to meaning”. Other psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, have also documented a human need for purpose in life which is placed among the higher order needs, once such lower concerns as food and shelter have been met. Frankl recognized that people often experienced what he called an existential void which caused them to seek something to give their lives greater meaning. He concluded that if people have a definite reason to live, they can endure any hardship, and noted, during his time in the camp that the prisoners who were able to focus outside themselves, who could convince themselves they had a reason to go on beyond mere survival often fared better than those who couldn’t. 

Ironically, the same tendency which allowed the prisoners in concentration camps to survive also fueled those who had created the camps. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf, states that Hitler came to power, not by promising an easy life for his people, but by promising them struggle and sacrifice. Through their struggle, they would build a better Germany, thereby giving them meaning for the hardships they would endure. Through pageantry, spectacle, and overblown rhetoric, Hitler fueled the myth of a Germany which would one day rule the world, and everyday Germans were seduced into believing they were part of something greater than themselves. No matter how mundane their lives were, by accepting this grand vision, they, too, could be heroes. On a much smaller scale, Charles Manson motivated a group of misguided flower children into committing horrible crimes with the belief that they were somehow serving a higher purpose. 

Most citizens of the US don’t vote and the reason most often cited is that they believe their votes don’t count. This is a belief that both parties in the US actively work to cultivate because if the constituency realizes they have the power to effect an election, no career politician will be safe. Each side wants their voters to turn out, while discouraging voters who don’t hold their beliefs. Eventually every election turns into a predictable event, since the only people who show up at the polls are the true believers, the base, so to speak. Since the system works for those in charge, there’s no motivation to change. Average citizens watch from the sidelines, convinced they have no control over the process. 

When a politician comes along able to tap into that discontent, for better or worse, people often find themselves swept up in the fervor, motivated by a sense they’re part of something more grandiose than their every day experiences. Emotions cancel out logic as people long to fill the void within, and no sacrifice seems too great in order to bring about that sense of destiny. A truly great leader, one motivated by a need to raise up his or her people, knows how to channel that energy into positive change, but all too often, the wrong type of person taps into that need and manipulates it for sinister purposes. History attests to the consequences of following such leaders, in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and even here in the United States. Those who say it can’t happen here fail to see it already has and will again if we’re not vigilant.

There’s an urban legend about a woman who spent years caring for her invalid mother. When her mother died, the woman’s friends convinced her to travel and have some fun, which they felt she had earned. On the first leg of her trip, she stopped in to visit an elderly aunt and, upon finding the aunt in poor health, curtailed her travel plans and started caring for the older woman. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus concludes that despite the grueling and frustrating task Sisyphus must endure, Sisyphus is content because he always knows what the day will bring. He has no reason for hope, therefore he’s never disappointed. 

Struggle and sacrifice are part of life and for many, they provide the motivation necessary to envision a brighter future where such hardships will be lessened. Just as hedonistic pursuits often lead to a life devoid of meaning and purpose, though, excessive or unnecessary sacrifice can leave people without a proper gauge by which to judge the demands placed upon them. Seeking a higher purpose is a tendency unique to humans, which has led to many great accomplishments throughout history, but just as often, the need for meaning has led people to follow those whose goals are short-sighted and self-serving. We all have a need to feel part of something greater than ourselves. We should not let this need override our better judgement or allow our good intentions to be diverted by empty promises from those whose intentions are dishonorable. 

Dead Parrots and Shows About Nothing 

Question MarkPython, Seinfeld, and Absurdity

People think of absurdity as someone acting irrationally, or strange things happening to an otherwise normal person, but often the heart of absurdity comes from people rationalizing behavior which defies explanation. My stock portfolio just tanked; now’s the perfect time to buy more! Whenever our instincts conflict with our intellects, we’re often at a loss to explain the discrepancy and grasp for whatever explanation seems to best suit the situation, regardless of how convoluted it may be. Writers such as Albert Camus have explored the absurdities of human behavior, the struggle to find meaning in an otherwise chaotic universe where events often seem random and arbitrary. For Camus, the ultimate absurdist act was suicide, particularly in reaction to the perceived meaningless of existence.

The human compulsion to create rules, only to search for ways to bend or break them provides endless examples of absurdist logic in action. While the tendency to make inexplicable decisions sometimes defies common sense, there is, often, a logic to absurdist reasoning, even if the reasons defy convention or otherwise seem contrived or arbitrary. A good source for examples of this is the Bible, in particular the book of Job in which Job must endure numerous hardships including physical maladies and the deaths of loved ones for no other reason than God has made a bet with Satan on how righteous Job is.

On the iconic television show Seinfeld, the absurdity sprang from the fact that the main characters knew their method of dealing with life often hurt them, but were unable or unwilling to change. Other commentators have pointed out how unlikable the characters were: Jerry the self-centered perfectionist; Elaine the insufferable intellectual snob; George the pathological liar; Kramer the bumbling n’er-do-well who often succeeds in spite of himself. What is most apparent about each of these characters is how often their problems are caused or escalated by their refusal to alter their behavior, even when that behavior was shown to have negative consequences. This was best highlighted in the episode entitled The Opposite, where George started doing the opposite of what his instincts told him, and soon found his dream job, an attractive girlfriend, and the success which had long eluded him.

A forerunner of the absurdity implicit in Seinfeld was the legendary British show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which introduced the antics of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam to American audiences, and befuddled numerous Silent Generation parents. The absurdity of Python often derived from distinguished people doing silly things; proper British upper crust individuals acting like idiots. With Python, it was common to establish a theme early in the show which keeps recurring throughout, such as a segment on identifying trees that only seemed to highlight “the larch” or having characters randomly say, in utter confusion, “lemon curry?” Seinfeld also had such themes, such as when George gets in trouble for saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Jerry proposes replacing the phrase with, “You are so good looking,” establishing the running gag for that episode.

One of the most famous sketches on Monty Python was The Pet Shop or, as it’s better known, the dead parrot sketch. In it, John Cleese portrays a disgruntled customer returning to a pet shop with a parrot he purchased there which he’s discovered is dead. The outright absurdity of the customer trying to convince the shop keeper of the condition of the parrot is compounded by the revelation during the skit that the bird was apparently dead when sold to the customer. What is instantly recognizable is not only how ridiculous the situation is, but how true to life it is. Who among us has not had to deal with a know-it-all salesperson whose eye toward the next sale overrides his or her concern for customer satisfaction. Is Cleese’s indignation at being “had” any different than a shopper’s ire over being sold a substitute pair of shoes that do not fit properly or shoppers learning that the advertised deal which lured them into a store is not available and most likely never was?

What often made Seinfeld so interesting was how densely packed it could be. In the episode called The Pothole, each one of the main characters had storylines, and even Newman had a subplot related to the main action. Jerry accidently knocks his girlfriend’s toothbrush into the toilet, and she uses it before he has a chance to tell her; George loses a key chain given to him by his boss; Elaine tries to devise a way to order Chinese takeout despite living on the wrong side of the street; and Kramer adopts a highway. In this episode, the worst tendencies of each character were fully on display. How else could it end than in a fiery cataclysm?

For centuries, it has been the province of drama and literature to point out the foibles of human nature and thus hold a mirror up to the behavior of individuals with an eye toward instructing them in proper actions. The Greek tragedies were filled with the consequences of failing to heed the will of the gods, and medieval morality plays featured characters often led astray by their baser instincts. In Job, his three friends try to convince him his fortune will improve if he’ll only admit that he’s not as righteous as he claims, while Job protests that he’s done nothing wrong and the reader knows he’s telling the truth. Throughout, Job’s pronouncements have a decidedly sarcastic ring to them leading one to believe the writer’s intent was to be darkly humorous. If Job doesn’t represent the actual birth of absurdist literature, it’s certainly one if the earliest surviving examples of it.

Even the most absurd situations have a logic to them. In my sketch Got Your Goat, a man named Harold comes home to his high rise condo in Midtown Atlanta and asks his flustered wife, Agnes, where the goats are. After a bit of conversation back and forth Agnes confirms that Harold isn’t crazy, they really do have goats. While the surface situation is absurd, underlying it is the logical premise that Harold has a familiar ritual in his life which brings him solace and when it isn’t there, he doesn’t accept the loss easily or well. The sketch ends without a coherent resolution but with one which further deepens the absurdity.

Whether it’s the contrived silliness of Monty Python or the situational absurdity of Seinfeld, the humor presented resonates with audiences from one generation to the next. Perhaps the impact of Seinfeld was its instructive nature, displaying the petty and superficial actions of its characters as a mirror on the narcissistic and self-serving culture of the nineties as a warning against becoming too self-involved. As with previous generations, tracing back through the morality plays, the Greek tragedies, and the book of Job, it’s a lesson people need to be reminded of again and again.

Communication Breakdown 

 

World Events, High Museum

World Events, 1996, High Museum; Artist: Tony Cragg; photo by G. M. Lupo.


The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had. 

–Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google

The Internet was once solely the province of academics and researchers; universities communicating with the governmental and military facilities that financed their research; and governmental and military facilities communicating with one another. The type of information it carried was static and highly structured and, since unhindered communication was a necessity, there were few boundaries, and the people using it were expected to know and abide by its rules. As a result, there was little need for security and facilities routinely shared information and files. The very purpose of the Internet was the free exchange of information, laying the groundwork for the massive communications portal it has become

As college students found their way onto the Internet, this culture began to change. The type of information exchanged became more informal and less rigid. Newsgroups began to flourish where people could chat, exchange information, and occasionally seek out nude photos of popular celebrities. It was in this environment where I first discovered the Internet, through an account at New York University, sometime around 1993. At the time, Freenets were springing up at places like Case Western University in Cleveland, and Erlangen in Germany which represented some of the earliest attempts to establish online Internet communities. The first note I posted to an Internet newsgroup was an inquiry about my family on soc.genealogy, and the first response I received was from a guy in Australia, telling me there were Lupos Down Under.

America Online (AOL) was one of the first widespread attempts by a company to package Internet usage and sell it to consumers with no background in the technology. Throughout the mid-1990s, their ubiquitous compact disks provided many experienced Internet users with free coasters for their drinks while allowing novice users their first access to the free wheeling and anarchistic world of the Internet and most didn’t like what they found there. Many of these people had backgrounds in the rigidly structured world of online services such as Prodigy, and found it hard to deal with a platform with no centralized authority which, to many, must have resembled an unmonitored bulletin board at their local supermarket.

It was during this period when the Internet was being overrun by one group of newcomers after another that I began to see it as a microcosm of society at large, particularly with regards to the experience of immigrants. Each new group started with zero knowledge of the existing protocols and etiquette, and usually set off a backlash among more seasoned users, in particular, those who had themselves been newcomers just a few years earlier. When students started using the Internet, the systems administrators who kept the mechanisms functioning, and therefore had the highest degree of knowledge about the portal, found themselves dealing with less experienced people who wanted to set up numerous chat rooms and newsgroups which, in the eyes of the admins, wasted bandwidth. The students, who established the rudimentary elements of what would over the next two decades evolve into social media, resented the intrusion of the first wave of consumers onto the Internet via services such as Netcom and AOL, especially since this included many of their parents, and the term “AOLuser” became a favorite derogatory expression for them. WebTV made it even easier for inexperienced people to get on the Internet, invoking the ire of AOL users, who now considered themselves the experts, just as the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of cities such as New York and Boston resented the influx of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and as many of their descendants now are resentful of Muslim newcomers.

When the World Wide Web first came about in the early-90s, I didn’t like it. Unix browsers at the time were text based without a method for displaying graphics and the whole enterprise seemed designed as a method of collecting links to other sites rather than conveying useful information. Netscape changed all that. The introduction of a graphical interface to the web suddenly made it come to life and demonstrated its full potential for transmitting knowledge. The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) which made up the web was a simplified form of Standard General Markup Language (SGML) used at CERN, making it relatively easy to master. Before long, websites were popping up all over the place, and businesses were anxious to get pages set up, even if they didn’t understand what the Web was or why they needed to be there. Many of these early pages were little more that fact sheets about the company containing text, with some photos, and a phone number or email link to contact a representative.

The Internet has since become a giant, worldwide, round the clock conversation that anyone with access is free to take part in. Implicit in that, however, is figuring out the rules, and observing the etiquette necessary to get the most out of the experience. Learning to navigate the various social media platforms is akin to learning a new language and culture. Each one has its own customs and quirks, and therefore its own special flavor. For people who spend most of their time on Facebook, visiting Reddit might be a confusing experience, and a considerable learning curve could be needed to understand the culture. Going from WordPress to Twitter would be similar to a novelist switching to writing micro stories. Instagram does not support animated GIFs, whereas Tumblr seems to thrive on them. Nowadays, the free transmission of information which was the bedrock of the early Internet, has led to such problems as identity theft, denial of service attacks, and phishing scams making tighter security a necessity.

Security is not the only dark side of the Internet. One industry which has thrived has been the porno industry. With the advent of digital cameras and video recorders, and quick wireless connections, filmmakers only need a reliable server, a domain name and willing participants to set up shop. It is, perhaps, typically human to create the most advanced communications network ever devised then use it to download and view nude photos and sexually explicit videos. On a more sinister note, terrorist networks such as ISIL use the Internet to communicate quickly and efficiently and to recruit new members.

An even more pervasive threat is cyber bullying and online shaming. Anyone who has ever visited certain Reddit forums, read the comments on a news or political site or fan page, knows of the incendiary nature of some of the posts. Marginalization within society which breeds hostility and mistrust, combined with the relative anonymity of online forums, combine to contribute to the angry and twisted posts some people make. Access to information and the number of public records available make it easy to identify and track an individual and just as easy to post personal details which “go viral” and disseminate quickly. As an experiment, I once tried collecting facts on an individual whose name I overheard at an event the previous evening and the level of knowledge I was able to gain about the person was frightening. In the hands of cyber vigilantes, and an overly eager audience numbering in the millions, information can become a deadly weapon.

Free exchange of information via the Internet has had a profound effect on people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and this effect is expanding at an exponential rate. Throughout Africa, for instance, people use their phones to share music and videos of their favorite local bands or performers, giving them a global audience. It’s almost a cliché within the United States to see people glued to their wireless devices, oblivious to the world around them. With technology advancing at an increasing pace, the information revolution created by the Internet and World Wide Web in the 1990s, will continue to transform society for generations to come.