Faceless in the crowd

As in a good fantasy story, there are parts of the Internet you just shouldn’t go to.

Peruse the comments section of just about any website, and you’re likely to run across vitriol-spewing trolls, hurling obscenities–and sometimes even rape or death threats–in arguments about seemingly everything.

In “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Stephen Marche attributes the rise of casually monstrous behavior on the Internet to the fact that attackers never see their victims’ faces.

Pulling examples from a diverse catalog that includes ancient Roman law, French phenomenology, and neuroscience, Marche argues that actually seeing another person’s face is the key to empathy.

That doesn’t typically happen online, hence the ease with which rape and death threats get thrown around.

It also means people need to work to imbue others with humanity. Attackers need to realize the people they’re threatening are, well, people, and their attacks should be understood in the context of a complex human psyche.

Remembering not to leave our humanity online is an admirable and necessary goal to work towards, but it will likely get harder to do as we rely more on indirect digital communication.

Because while society still shuns Internet trolls, it also continues to devalue humanity  at the expense of performing discreet tasks more efficiently.

That’s what digital technology does. It lets us do everything from shopping to wishing each other “Happy Birthday” quickly, cleanly, and efficiently.

Saving money and time is good, of course, but it’s possible this obsession with digital efficiency is also grooming people to be less tolerant of each other.

The number of situations where strangers are forced to candidly interact in everyday life is diminishing. Does using one of those self-cehckout machines really save that much time, or do you just prefer not having to exchange pleasantries with a human cashier?

It’s not that people need to be in the mood to talk to each other all of the time, but with Internet-related technology making it so easy to put each other at a distance, it’s hard to see how the “epidemic of facelessness” can be cured.

Beneath the shiny confidence of Silicon Valley futurism, the way of life being constructed around the Internet is potentially damaging to human empathy, even if it is easier.

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