Longtime Christ and Pop Culture readers have probably noticed that many of our writers have “beats” they frequently write about. Erin Wyble Newcomb focuses on parenting and pop culture; Alan Noble tackles the uneasy relationship between politics and the Church; E. Stephen Burnett writes about geek culture; and Luke T. Harrington looks at the craziness percolating on the Web.
Similarly, there’s one theme that repeatedly pop ups in my articles: how technology can bring our brokenness into sharp relief, whether it’s illuminating cracks in our legal and ethical codes, revealing our greediness and materialism, or exposing our propensity for being jerks.
Admittedly, it feels odd revisiting this topic every few months. I’ve been a computer geek since grade school in the ‘80s, when my dad traded some woodworking equipment for our first computer, a Commodore SX-64. I’ve always loved reading about and studying the latest gadgets and technical trends, and I’d be foolish not to acknowledge how the Internet, etc. has proved a boon to humanity. If nothing else, the same technology that provides so many avenues for depravity makes it possible for me to provide for my family as a web developer. But reminiscent of the parable of the wheat and the tares, in this world darkness often threatens to overpower the light, and several recent, seemingly disconnected, stories highlight yet again the role technology has played in this battle.
Last month, Adrian Chen wrote a blistering takedown of Anonymous, the decentralized hacker collective known for activities ranging from online pranks to taking on Scientology. Chen’s article discusses Anonymous’ less-than-honorable origins and propensity for harassment as well as its bloated sense of self-importance and efficacy. Chen insightfully asks, “How did we get to a point where people expect a gang of young geeks with nanosecond attention spans wearing masks from an action movie, who write manifestos in faux-revolutionary prose and play amateur detective in chat rooms, to help a fraught social cause like Ferguson?”
Two years ago, I wrote about Anonymous’ takedown of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church for protesting a vigil for the Sandy Hook victims. Anonymous crippled Westboro’s website, released members’ personal information, and even placed gay porn on its spokesperson’s computer. Their actions — even against a target as seemingly deserving as Westboro — raise serious questions about vigilantism. Anonymous has no official leadership or authority structure, so anyone can do anything in its name. As a result, there’s no accountability or oversight for Anonymous’ actions — even those actions that clearly cross the line separating juvenile pranks from vicious harassment.
Another notorious figure known for regularly crossing that line is Andrew “weev” Auernheimer. Auernheimer — whose big spotlight came in 2010 when he helped reveal flaws in AT&T’s security — is arguably the Internet’s most (in)famous troll. But he was making waves even before the AT&T incident. In 2007, he launched a harassment campaign against a programmer and game developer named Kathy Sierra and posted her personal information online. Sierra subsequently received threats of murder and sexual violence and eventually left the Internet because of safety concerns.
Since being released from prison earlier this year — he’d been sentenced for the AT&T hack — Auernheimer has revealed himself to be a white supremacist and a staunch hater of the American government. Read any interview with Auernheimer, like this extensive one, and a few things become clear. Auernheimer might be a brilliant hacker, but he’s also disturbed and possessed by extreme delusions of grandeur. He’s filled with rage and vitriol at the government, considering Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh a hero. He supports Hezbollah and Hamas. And while he now lives in Beirut, he’s still interested in events back home – especially the unrest in Ferguson — if his Twitter feed is any indication.
Technology can have a powerfully disruptive effect on authority structures. With its decentralized nature, the Internet, for example, makes it possible to disseminate damning information in ways that are impossible to find and stamp out, as numerous government officials both here and abroad discovered after the Edward Snowden leaks. This disruptive effect is not inherently evil. Indeed, it can be used for much good, such as highlighting government and corporate corruption. It can also make it possible to work more efficiently and effectively, revealing the shortcomings of whatever systems came before. But this disruptive effect can also give license to selfishness, greed, and egotism. Which brings us to Uber.
On the surface, there’s little similarity between online provocateurs like Anonymous and Auernheimer, and Uber, the incredibly popular ride-sharing service that, some argue, has brought fairness into the transportation market by challenging traditional taxi services. Indeed, when officials in my old hometown sought to block Uber from opening there earlier this year, Uber supporters called them out for blocking progress.
But Uber has also received numerous accusations of being arrogant and careless. The company was criticized for abusing the data it collects from users (sometimes without permission). Customers have been subjected to harassment and dangerous behavior. And Uber has also been charged with promoting sexism and misogyny, from the CEO’s behavior to its marketing.
How a company responds to such accusations reveals much about its culture, and in Uber’s case, the responses have often smacked of even more arrogance. They added a $1 fee to customer bills to pay for background checks, inspections, and other safety features. Customers were understandably outraged: imagine a restaurant charging a “safety fee” to ensure employees washed their hands. Uber also downplayed their responsibility for careless drivers. The CEO allegedly compared the harassment of Uber drivers to Ferguson. And finally, an Uber exec suggested attacking Uber critics by digging into their personal lives. Vox.com’s Matthew Yglesias sums it up thusly:
A conviction that the rules don’t (or shouldn’t) apply to you is fine when you’re battling a taxi mogul who compares your business to ISIS. But it’s extremely unattractive when you start talking about compromising customer user data for the purposes of blackmail. And it’s completely insane when that kind of recklessness leads you to talk to journalists about the oppo tactics you’re planning to deploy against other journalists.
None of this is to suggest that technology made Anonymous go after a kid for his “No Cussing” club, or forced Auernheimer to recklessly troll and dish out threats and vitriolic assaults. And I don’t believe that technology made Uber and its execs behave arrogantly and recklessly. However, technology has allowed them to indulge arrogance and hubris to a great degree. The technology that allows Anonymous and Auernheimer to prank, harass, and troll with near-impunity, and the technology that allows Uber to sidestep and flout traditional regulations governing transportation and commerce, is not evil. But when it’s used in a manner that allows no room for grace or flourishing, it bears only rotten fruit — and often to a shockingly disproportionate degree.
Noam Chomsky once wrote that “the internet could be a very positive step towards education, organisation and participation in a meaningful society.” It is deeply ironic that the Internet — a technology that is all about connection — time and again proves to be a tool for strife, disunity, and behaviors that do nothing but break connections between people.
I am not arguing that we should become Luddites and abandon the Internet, and other technology in general, especially since I’d be unable to provide for my family if that happened. However, we must think more carefully about the technology in our lives — especially as it grows increasingly ubiquitous and requires increasingly less effort to employ — and what we use it for. This is doubly true for Christians.
I have no doubt that, just as we’re held responsible for our words and deeds, we’ll be held responsible for our tweets and comments. If the tongue is “a world of unrighteousness,” how much more so Twitter? You may not be a nameless member of a hacker collective, or a world-class troll, or the CEO of a company worth billions. You might just be a web developer living in the American midwest who’s grown up around technology his whole life. But the same questions should be considered by us all: Are we using the powerful, disruptive technology at our own fingertips to encourage, to think critically and compassionately, to spread shalom and create a “meaningful society”? Or are we using it to sow seeds of discord and hatred, spread vitriol and thoughtlessness, and give license to our own pride and avarice?
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