Catching Up

It’s been a while since I’ve posted new content on this blog, for a couple of reasons. One, things have been busy in the category of “doing what I do for a living,” which doesn’t include writing this book. Two, I’ve been maintaining a state of neutral observance regarding the digital media’s coverage of the US election cycle. It’s inevitable that, at some point, I’ll need to address the whole Trump/Clinton/Sanders spectacle and the role that the Internet played in its outcome. God help me.

In September, I presented an abstract of my research thus far at an academic conference in Chicago. I usually don’t participate in such things, mostly because I tend to adhere to the philosophy that academic conferences are time-wasting echo chambers. However, I did feel as if I needed to pressure-test the book’s themes in front of an audience and gauge their response. The feedback was reasonably positive and constructive, with one recommendation that I more fully explore the role that misogyny plays in dictating online behavior. Although I’ve certainly touched upon this, I could do a better job of explicitly underscoring this attribute as a common thread in my narrative.

Presenting in front of a group is something I’d like to do more often in 2017. My last book, Digital Outcasts, certainly generated positive lift during my rigorous speaking schedule from 2009-2014. It’s not unlikely that I’ll be looking to expand public awareness around Pixel Pushers in the coming months.

Anyway, here’s what I can reveal with regard to progress on the book itself: one way or another, the first draft will be completed within the first half of 2017. I don’t yet have a publisher, but I’m working with an agent to field opportunities (including self-publication). My office worktable has six stacks of researched material, and each stack is several inches tall. The excavation has begun in earnest. I’ve also created a Twitter account for the book, which I suppose is what people do today.

Aphrodite Refused

“I would calmly ask, is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded,” wrote Judith Sargent Murray in her landmark 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Judith Sargent Murray, as painted by John Singleton Copley
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

One might also calmly ask to what extent our digital culture has become reliant upon a landscape of degradation, albeit one in which immortality is defined as the distance between an immediate impression and a regrettable decision. For women who deign to utilize the Internet as a social tool, that threshold has long been surpassed.

Such was the experience of Kristen Parisi, an unmarried, socially active woman who happens to have a disability. She joined Tinder with much the same expectations as any other user: a low-commitment method of exploring potential dating partners, quickly, without making a significant emotional investment. Ms. Parisi consciously chose to conceal her wheelchair in her profile photos, mostly to protect herself from hurtful comments made by users with whom she had no intention of connecting.

Since Ms. Parisi understood that she would not be able to keep her wheelchair a secret indefinitely to potential suitors, she typically disclosed her disability sometime within the first few minutes of messaging. What she did not anticipate was how quickly the perception of her would change upon discovery:

Even if I had great messaging chemistry with a guy, I would instantly go from being the “sexy redhead” he’s planning to go out with to the “girl in a wheelchair” — and that chair would define me … One guy I told responded, “So why are you on here? Shouldn’t you be dating someone in a wheelchair?” The men on Tinder apparently thought this was an okay thing to say to a woman.

Although the comments Ms. Parisi received only worsened over time (one user responded with an insensitive remark about her imagined sexual habits; another simply called her “gross” and deleted her profile from his list of matches), this story has a relatively happy ending. Eventually, Ms. Parisi pursued a short-term dating relationship and reaffirmed her faith in the male species.

Venu de MiloWhat is of interest here, though, is the steep slide into self-doubt that results from a handful of unfortunate encounters. Ms. Parisi acknowledges the blow she took to her self-esteem, to the point where she questioned whether her disability should disqualify her from the joys of modern sexuality to which she is rightfully entitled.

It’s not only the digital realm where this unhealthy form of self-reflection occurs; according to a study conducted at the University of Chicago, it’s actually a part of our psychological makeup. Researchers at the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that the lonelier we become, the more our attention is drawn toward negative social information. As a result, lonely people tend to be hypersenstive to threatening behavior—a scientific tidbit that explains but does not excuse perpetrators of abuse upon those they target.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford, Australian writer who fought back against a man who called her a “slut” on her public Facebook page.

Some of those targets are fighting back. Australian writer Clementine Ford discovered that vigilance comes with a price, even if the outcome is conducted in the spirit of support. When a male commenter called Ms. Ford a “slut” on her public Facebook, she openly wondered what the gentleman’s employers would think of his behavior. After being alerted, the company (a hotel chain called Meriton Apartments) promptly fired the commenter and offered Ms. Ford a public apology.

This should have been the end of it, but the tsunami of vitriol that followed led some to accuse Ms. Ford of overreacting to “mean words on the Internet” and “trawling the Internet looking to be offended.” The reaction was severe enough that Ms. Ford felt compelled to explain what freedom of speech really means in terms of personal responsibility, especially within a digital landscape where it’s not always possible to identify one’s attackers:

[Freedom of speech] is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free. It has mainly served to support abusive trolls who, despite the frequency with which they appear to be pictured with families, seem to have nothing better to do than stalk women online to try and scare them into shutting up.

Despite the tendency to attribute these case studies as simply two more examples of why the Internet hates women, the reality is that de-identifying behavior regarding female roles in society has manifested since the inception of modern civilization. Whether worshipped spiritually as divine bringers of life or castigated as second-class citizens, women have traditionally been co-opted to an idealized, largely masculine-influenced archetype of domination, exultation and (ultimately) control.

Lizzie Velasquez as a child
Lizzie Velasquez as a child. “Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments on a YouTube video about her; “kill it with fire” said another. One commenter said people would go blind if they saw her on the street.

Humankind has always had an uneasy relationship with customs of etiquette, especially with regard to women’s place in the ecosystem. What makes Internet unique is how rapidly this decoupling takes place. We see it today in the form of cyberbullying against a woman with Marfan syndrom and a professional violinist who posts messages she receives from anonymous fetishists on Instagram. Perhaps the most appropriate response, such as in the case of Ms. Ford, is to simply fight fire with fire and accept that someone, somewhere is going to bring a bigger torch.

Or maybe, to again quote Judith Sargent Murray, it’s best to just hide away from it all. Once wonders if Ms. Murray were alive to see what today’s Internet subculture has wrought from “the low manners of an injurious multitude,” as she wrote in 1793, she might be compelled to further revisit a desire to “shield [her]self in the fair asylum of conscious innocence” in order to escape it. And who could blame her?

Hidden In Plain Sight

Scene from the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise's character being questioned by the Red Cloak upon discovery that he has invaded the secret gathering

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, step forwards. May I have the password?
Dr. Bill Harford: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s right, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password… for the house?
Dr. Bill Harford: The password for the house?
Red Cloak: Yes?
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry… I seem to… have forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference… whether you have forgotten it… or if you never knew it. Kindly remove your mask.

This famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut portrays Tom Cruise as a self-assured and curious young doctor who, upon stumbling into a bacchanalian orgy attended by costumed aristocrats, very quickly realizes that he is out of his depth. It’s not Kubrick’s best film, but it’s arguably his creepiest.

For 37 million users of the online dating site Ashley Madison, the request to “remove their masks” was neither kind nor open to negotiation. The website, which allows married individuals a way to secretly cheat on their spouses, was recently the target of anonymous hackers who stole sensitive customer data and threatened to post it online. Suddenly, a number of very nervous Ashley Madison customers were at risk for having their data compromised, including 15,000 .mil or .gov email addresses.

Avid Life Media (ALM), the parent company that runs Ashley Madison (along with Cougar Life and Established Men), acknowledged the breach in a public statement. That was not enough to prevent The Impact Team, the group behind the attack, from dumping 9.7 gigabytes of account details to the dark web. Within hours, everything related to a user’s profile was available to the public: credit card transactions, email addresses, phone numbers, even full descriptions of the sexual fantasies users were looking to fulfill with their extramarital affairs.


Digital Schadenfreude

It didn’t take long for observers on social media to express their amusement at what appeared to be poetic justice for thousands of cheating spouses. Several media pundits, in fact, mentioned the public shaming that took place at the expense of those whose data was hacked. In any event, Twitter was alive with commentary on the subject:

A number of journalists questioned the accuracy of the data exposed as a result of the breach. Computer security expert Graham Cluley wrote in a blog post that the appearance of an email address did not automatically incriminate the owner of that account as an adulterer — especially since the site administrators never bothered to verify email addresses:

For one thing, being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner. You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh or even to find out if someone else was on the site … if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing.

Another outcome has been the number of research firms who have used data pulled from the breach and created graphical charts depicting the cheating habits of Ashley Madison users. We can find out which cities appear to have the highest ratio of adultery, how many Australian government officials have Ashley Madison accounts, the ratio of male to female users worldwide, and how many Ashley Madison users work at IBM.

Whisper photo with caption: Yes, we all laughed it off. Turns out my gf was also cheating ... with the same girl.More importantly, though, are the effects of the breach on those whose data was exposed. The secret sharing app Whisper, for example, offers users an anonymous platform for posting lessons learned from being caught having an affair. In some ways, the Ashley Madison case study represents a perfect storm of all the ingredients necessary to bring out life ruination: casual sex, random infidelity, wanton bullying, technostress paranoia. Even in these digitally-permeant times, we continue to have an uneasy relationship with technology when it comes to our private lives.

Why We Can’t Trust Computers

Humans operate under the condition of short-term memory, also called working memory, on a daily basis. The brain tries to make sense of the sensations it receives by using what it already understands from experience, forming patterns based on previous behavior. This is the connective tissue that links key functions involving reason and comprehension.

The problem is that our brains have limited capacity. We can only process small packets of data in roughly 20-second bursts, unless the information is repeated on an endless loop. Our brains are also affected by impulses in judgment, which are influenced differently from one person to another, reflecting wide nuances in maturity and social development.

Computers, on the other hand, are the masters of long-term memory. Server farms for websites like Ashley Madison stay in business precisely because they are able to store large amounts of information for extended periods of time. Computers have no moral compass when it comes to data, whether it’s to protect a social security number or a clandestine encounter; however, we expect the same degree of discretion from our digital services as we do from humans. The efforts we take to conceal our identities in the course of scandalous behavior must be shared by everyone who participates, especially the system designed to shield us from being discovered.

The Ashley Madison hacking is more than a case study about infidelity. It’s about the inherent suspicion that no one can be trusted, either man or machine. Our fear of being unmasked is buffered solely by our faith in a reliable and discrete service provider. We expect technology to be neutral, much like a therapist who understands our reasons for having an affair and yet refuses to judge us. When a breach happens, it’s horrific because we’ve essentially enabled a computer to demonstrate the moral compass of a human, and both have let us down.

Frank Zappa

In the end, it comes down to whether we are ever truly able to be comfortable with ourselves. We play right into the hands of those who know they hold all the leverage, because what we’ve really done is come face-to-face with our own guilt. It’s not the sort of thing that can be protected with a password named after an opera. When Frank Zappa asked What’s the ugliest part of your body? in 1968, he had the right idea when he answered his own question with, “I think it’s your mind.”

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

“If I come back to this earth, I’m coming back as an animal,” rock musician and television celebrity Ozzy Osbourne told Spin Magazine in 1986. “People in this world do far more good for animals than they do for people. If a guy is stuck up a tree, they’ll leave him there.”

Cecil the Lion and Dr. Walter PalmerFast-forwarding nearly thirty years, an American dentist named Walter Palmer recently killed a 13-year-old protected lion for the sum of $55,000. A beloved member of the local community, Cecil was a major attraction at the Hwange National park in Matabelelland North in Zimbabwe. Prior to his demise, Cecil’s movements had been tracked by researchers from the University of Oxford as part of a larger study on animal behavior (attempts to destroy Cecil’s GPS tracking collar after decapitation were unsuccessful), and the hunters claimed his skin as a “trophy” following the hunt.

Dr. Palmer’s slaying of the cherished animal drew international media attention, sparking outrage among animal conservationists, politicians, businesses and celebrities. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel was moved to tears during his monologue, Piers Morgan suggested mounting Dr. Palmer’s head on a wall, and a cohort of airlines put a ban on transporting game trophies on their planes. The Zimbabwean government is seeking extradition for Dr. Palmer, as of this writing, and two other men have been prosecuted for the roles they played in planning and carrying out the hunt.

The consequences for Dr. Palmer’s actions have extended to within the borders of his home country. Recent acts of vigilantism evince a relentless urgency to condemn everything related to Dr. Palmer, his River Bluff Dental practice and his personal life. The practice’s Yelp page is swollen with negative reviews; Dr. Palmer’s credentials are the subject of online satire (“now kids are asking their dentists if they plan on murdering Bambi or the Easter Bunny”); cyber shaming threads continue to pile up on Reddit and Imgur news feeds; and persistent threats of physical violence have led to the removal of River Bluff’s Twitter and Facebook accounts (including one attempt at a temporarily renamed Facebook page).

Memorial And Protest Held At Office Of Minnesota Dentist That Killed Famed Lion In Zimbabwe
BLOOMINGTON, MN – JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer’s River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Today, the River Buff Dental practice is closed and Dr. Palmer remains in seclusion, his only communication taking the form of a written statement of apology issued through a Minneapolis-based public relations firm. Crisis management experts have largely minimized their involvement in the case, however, for fear that the Internet backlash would soon pulverize their own livelihoods.

Whatever our individual views on hunting in general, there’s a lot to dislike when examining the intentions of Walter Palmer. There is no lens of logic through which the slaying of Cecil can be viewed as anything but gratuitously cruel. The lion was tracked for 40 hours and purposely led away from the sanctuary before he was beheaded and skinned, his corpse left to rot on the Zimbabwean landscape. Brutality is ugly business, and it’s not difficult to see how quickly escalation can occur via social media. One day we’re using the “#WeAreCecil” hashtag to generate support; the next, we’re issuing a public call for digital mob justice.

Amid the #WeAreCecil vitriol, however, emerged a single tweet that perhaps served to embed a more reflective (if acerbic) viewpoint. Author Roxane Gay made it very clear what she meant when she announced on Twitter that “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.” In her op-ed piece for the New York Times, Ms. Gay forces us to consider an uncomfortable dichotomy, one that questions our ability to mourn the passing of human and non-human lives on equal terms:

Cecil the lion was a majestic creature and a great many people mourn his death, the brutality of it, the senselessness of it. Some people also mourn the deaths, most recently, of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, but this mourning doesn’t seem to carry the same emotional tenor. A late-night television host did not cry on camera this week for human lives that have been lost. He certainly doesn’t have to. He did, however, cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.

The human brain has a constant need to form order from disorder, to find patterns of logic where there are none. We search for signs of premeditated instigation in one instance, because it helps us to rationalize the fear we have against our fellow humans—especially those who look different from us. In another scenario, one in which a sole human is the evil-doer, we are able to mourn the senselessness of the tragedy without any such assurances. Ms. Gay suggests that while both events are tragic, only one appears to warrant the tears of a late-night talk show host.

When we stand together against something generally agreed to be egregious (9/11 comes to mind), social media can be a conduit to emotional catharsis: an almost celebratory experience in human interaction. At its worst, however, social media is a vehicle for excessive cyber shaming; it devolves our capacity for etiquette, self-awareness and decorum when and where such reactions are appropriate. We prioritize our level of engagement according to our values at the moment of exposure, ready to erupt at the slightest impulse. It’s randomized empathy kept at a low boil.

Not many people know that Zimbabwe is currently facing a food shortage crisis, the result of a botched government intervention forcing experienced farmers to relocate to less fertile territory. Questionable land reform bills have similarly degraded the nation’s economy, leaving more than two-thirds of its population facing acute electricity and water shortages. Given the circumstances, Zimbabwe residents admit to being distracted by other problems than the unlawful killing of a wild animal. It’s not the sort of thing that generates a celebrity response on Twitter, perhaps, but to paraphrase Roxane Gay: we did at least cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.