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Article Highlights

  • Every new device increases the speed & outreach of the last, and young people are now governed by the gadgets in their hands

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  • We are social creatures; all that we value and all that we fear has its source in #communication

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  • The problem is not the use to which the gadget has been put, but the gadget itself

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Changes in the technology of communication are occurring so rapidly that we human beings now move through a cloud of messages as dense as a locust-storm. Every new device increases the speed and the outreach of the last, and young people are now governed by the gadgets in their hands, which don't merely contain their lives but also to a great extent dictate them.

Of course, the print media still exist. There are old-fashioned people like myself who make a living by writing things, and old-fashioned people like you, who support us by reading, or at any rate buying, what we write. But maybe it's only people like us (if I can presume to include you) who are able really to regret the changes that are sweeping away so much that we depended upon. The rest of the world is caught up in the torrent of gadgets, each new model designed to relieve its owner of one more source of mental exercise or one more obstacle to fun. Memory now exists behind a screen. Very little is stored in our heads, and our recollections drift in cyberspace like asteroids, unconnected to the orbit in which we move.

"These gadgets full of messages stand at the door of your life, asking to take over." -- Roger Scruton

A university teacher can no longer assume that a student has any use for books or even knows how to open one. Written letters are a thing of the past, and essays are downloaded from the sites devoted to them. Research means surfing the web, and as for social life--this is a matter of tweeting and twittering as one drifts through cyberspace. Facebook friendships bubble up in a moment, and consist in a mutual agreement between strangers to put themselves on display. More and more does it seem that putting yourself on display is what it is all about, that there is nothing more to love and friendship than being mutually visible. Intimacy and privacy are dreams of the oldies, who live down there with their feet in the mud, and don't know how to launch themselves into the ether.

The distinction between the private and the public is therefore no longer clear. If your private life consists largely of displays in cyberspace, and if friendship means access to those displays, then it is hardly an offense to look. The stuff that is sent around the ether by way of self-advertisement is there for all to read and see, and the one who complains that his privacy has been invaded, when personal correspondence or embarrassing photographs are suddenly public possessions, has only himself to blame--not for posting the material, but for being embarrassed by it. There is no real dividing line now, between intimacy and exposure, and people are rapidly losing the sense that hacking into another's correspondence is a form of theft, or displaying intimate images is a form of assault. If your target is a government you can even become a hero, like Julian Assange, simply by displaying what others have wanted to hide.

One result of this is that the old laws of libel and defamation are falling into disuse. People can no longer protect themselves by suing the source of malicious gossip, and in any case the distinction between the true and the false is less and less relevant to the messages posted on the web. Anybody who has the slightest ability to attract the attention of the twittering classes will find lies, fabrications, fantasies, and lunatic accusations attached to his name in the cyber-sphere as well as true revelations that he would rather have kept to himself. In such circumstances to protest at all is to protest too much. For abuse is less and less perceived as such: the twitterers dismiss everything with a flap of the wings and blow another tweet.

Of course it is, officially, a crime to hack into other people's correspondence, and those journalists who explored the messages of celebrities on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers have had to pay a severe price, with several of them now in jail. But they acted in the same spirit as the intrusive journalists of former times who kept vigil from the house across the road, or who followed celebrities on motorbikes. Only the technology had changed. The left-wing Guardian newspaper mounted its high horse in condemnation of Rupert Murdoch's empire, implying that journalists of leftist convictions would never stoop so low. As someone whose e-mails have been stolen and published by the Guardian, I found this less than convincing. But it reminded me that journalists have always breached the bounds of privacy when they thought they could get away with it. What has changed is the technology of communication, which has implied that there are no longer any bounds to breach. People carry round their lives in a gadget, which they might leave behind on a train for anyone to pick up or throw away.

COMMUNICATION IS NOT like other human actions, something that we might feel free not to engage in. It is the essence of human life. We are social creatures, whose personalities emerge from our interactions; all that we value and all that we fear has its source in communication. Hence these gadgets, which change the form and the scope of our communications, are less our servants than our masters. The adventures to which they tempt us are easy to embark on and seem to be entirely without danger. We travel round the world with the click of a mouse; we visit friends and strangers on the screen, twitter into the void and post on our Facebook walls all the things we want the world to know. We sit at our desks and enjoy every kind of thrill at no cost in danger. So we think. In fact we are caught in the worldwide web like flies, wriggling in the suffocating bonds of communication. And we don't know the way back; we are sitting at our desks, but far, far indeed from home.

As we now know, it is not only messages but also images that can get stolen and shown to the world. What an adventure, to take a picture of yourself all naked, and send it to your boyfriend of the moment. The cell phone is there, asking you to do it. And what's the problem, when nobody sees? Unfortunately what one person sees everyone can see. Women discover their nude image in the cell phones of friends and enemies, in the fantasies of strangers, in the lustful plans of predatory men and displayed all over cyberspace. How to get back home from this one? We should not be surprised that one girl, unable to live with her prostituted image, has committed suicide, and that celebrities like Scarlett Johansson are now vainly trying to rub their naked bottoms off a million computer screens.

The problem is not the use to which the gadget has been put, but the gadget itself. These gadgets full of messages stand at the door of your life, asking to take over. And young people, who have no defenses against them, very quickly invite them in. Parents like to think that, by providing their child with such a gadget, they are providing him or her with a mere instrument, something that can be used for legitimate purposes that already exist--like letting your parents know where you are and when to collect you. In fact they are providing their child with a new master, one designed to take over the person who holds it.

Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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