By Michael Wood
Arthur C. Clarke was amongst the most prodigious minds of the 20th century. He was a somewhat novel concept in the 1960s – a celebrity scientist. Once people had learned how to do things like build the atom bomb and broadcast themselves using it on television there grew a public fascination with futurism and the potential for technology to change things. Clarke stepped through a door opened by the likes of Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Curie, whose work propelled them into the public eye. He wrote fiction, producing some of the world’s greatest science fiction novels. 2001: A Space Odyssey and its film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick redefined the genre and prepared audiences everywhere to step into the Space Age. All the while, Clarke wrote non-fiction works on futurism and space travel, and in 1962 published Profiles of the Future – a collection of essays in which he detailed his predictions of what the 21st century would hold for humanity. Many are strikingly accurate. Speaking in a BBC documentary in 1964 Clarke discussed the implications that the transistor and the communications satellite might have for humanity. He opined:
Clarke’s statement is prophetic, yet it fails to capture the full condition of our modern world. Perhaps when Clarke imagined a fully-connected world, he envisioned a utopian future for humanity in which the free flow of knowledge would hurl us into an age of enlightenment. Indeed, his only concern for the world described above was that it ‘isn’t turned into one giant suburb’. Gifted as he was, Clarke’s outlook may have been optimistic.
Freedom of expression is amongst the most sacred pillars of the free world. Counterintuitively, connecting people all over the world and encouraging them to engage with the ‘free market of ideas’ has forced us into a difficult conversation: When, if ever, is it acceptable to punish somebody for their words? Conventional wisdom says that drawing the line anywhere will have ramifications for Free Speech, and thus all non-violent methods of expression should be tolerated, no matter the content. Theoretically, this principle coupled with our instantaneous connections should create an environment of healthy, democratic discussion in which all can participate, but it isn’t so simple.
Today, people use social media to actively antagonise people we know we can stir up (among other uses). We know exactly what to say, and where, to get the response we need. In a sense this fulfils the promise of the internet. At any given time, there is a rigorous, passionate debate taking place online about any conceivable topic. Yet the sum of these discussions is not enlightenment, but seemingly greater division. Why? The short answer is that rather than being intellectual, the bulk of these discussions are emotional in nature.
Since sites like Facebook actively seek to exploit your emotional responses and keep you on the hook, we have an environment in which online discussion often feels like an attempt at neither conversation, nor conversion. It isn’t about logic, morals, or advancement. It is about generating a cathartic release and being reinforced by the acknowledgement of other users. It is about taking the things in life that bother us and building a reality in which we righteously tear those things down. There is a very good word for this:
In contrast to Clarke’s vision, our connectedness grants more opportunity than ever to simmer in our angst and lash out at the shadows of our prejudice. The unexpected consequence of a text-driven world is that words are cheap and plentiful. By extension, we hurl them at one another liberally and, for many, there is no line that cannot be crossed. Even when heated discussion evolves into direct threats of violence, sexual assault, or slander, some still expect us to turn a blind eye in the name of freedom. For some, freedom of speech really does mean freedom from consequence, even if that speech holds real consequences for others…
In December 2000, something appeared at the surface of the Odek River, Poland. It was the body of Dariusz Janiszewski. Janiszewski had been stripped, and bound in a torturous position at the neck, hands, and feet. Police investigated, but the case went cold until 2003 when Detective Wroblewski decided to revisit it. He noticed that Janiszewski’s mobile phone was never located. This lead to the discovery that an account named ChrisB had posted the phone for auction on November 17, 2000. The account belonged to Krystian Bala. A businessman turned author, Bala’s first novel, Amok, was published that year.
Amok was a kind of postmodern Crime and Punishment. It involved a man named Chris who commits a crime so perfect that it is never solved. During the killing, Chris bound the victim in a familiar style, and Wroblewski took note. He chased the lead down, and Krystian Bala was charged. Amok was not the only evidence against Bala. Still, he was adamant that he was being put on trial for creating a work of art. Bala apparently felt that his masterpiece was too great a threat to the status quo, that he was being punished for expressing himself. The prosecution’s case was too strong, however, and Bala was convicted. Authorities claim Bala had begun planning a second murder to inspire a new novel.
This isn’t to say that trolls and slacktivists are murderous, but it illustrates something important. Our words always betray us. It is important that people be free to speak, but for that right to be exercised by everyone we should keep our online conduct civil and sympathetic. We shouldn’t punish words, but we must acknowledge their power and police ourselves better. When we are aggressive, dismissive, or cruel online we make it harder for everybody to feel safe sharing their opinions. We silence many for the sake of allowing some to say what they please, even when it is done explicitly to hurt, intimidate, or disenfranchise. Remember that people have no way of knowing whether you’re Arthur C. Clarke, or Krystian Bala. If you want everyone to have their say then ask yourself: am I exercising my rights, or simply running amok?