Ah, the internet, the internet, let us count the many blessings of the internet.
As the internet means one thing to this guy and something else to that guy, the best approach I can take to this complex topic seems to be to jabber on a bit about what it means to me.
So I will.
When I was a kid, I had a pen pal in Germany named Erik, and I remember waiting for weeks for a return letter from him. Today he, like friends, relatives and classmates a world removed physically, would now be only a click away.
If I am so minded, today I can pursue interests online as varied as engine repair, chase down the recipe for the greatest cacciatore ever, follow an archaeologist in hot pursuit of the legendary tomb of Cleopatra, laugh my head off at a comedian in far-off India, discover what made Neanderthals tick.
How cool is that, right?
On the flip side, however, we all know about the internet’s darker side.
Intentionally, in the hands of bad actors, or, by its own “murderous innocence,” in the hands of people who accept at face value what they read, the internet has become a conduit for the dissemination of harmful misinformation.
In the hands of children, the internet too often mutates into a weapon for bludgeoning peers with concentrated, vicious personal attacks, transforming them into some sort of internet tse-tse flies, stinging and bullying other kids at the most vulnerable moments of their lives into madness and suicide.
In the hands of sexual deviants, it’s a useful tool to lure innocents into fatal traps.
And to sully that positive, just-a-click-away-contact I marveled at above, now some, once-isolated dude in Bismarck whose brain has sparked a murderous ideation can find common cause with another, like-minded loopy dude in Kennewick, Wash., a third in Amsterdam, a fourth in St. Petersburg, and so on.
And the easy facility with which such people can now link up with others who share their ideas may even give them assurance that, despite what smart-alecky psychiatrists say, they can retort: “See, I’m not crazy. There is a conspiracy. There are lizard people. Those guys over there see it, too.”
I am not naive. Conspiracies are real things. There’s no denying it. But the advent of the internet appears to have acted as a force-multiplier to fatten the ranks of the conspiratorially-minded. Alliances have formed to fight the sinister forces that lurk under every stone and behind every door, bent, as members of the club insist, on the pursuit of evil. And the bad guys are always other people.
I don’t what else to call this but the normalization of paranoia — the mainstreaming of ideas we would once have laughed off.
It is now much more acceptable to believe that the alleged worldwide organization called The Illuminati has built its central complex under the sprawling Denver International Airport.
That the United States government faked the 1969 moon landing.
That King Charles is a demon.
That Democrats eat children, Republicans are fascists, that the Earth is flat. The last in that list demands a baffling conspiracy stretching back to the geometers of ancient Greece and beyond.
What is truly disheartening is that once minds have fastened onto the idea of such conspiracies, there appears to be no sort of solvent to dissolve the mental machinery.
And alongside this phenomenon we’ve seen the palpable growth of a market of salesmen devoid of conscience, greedy to take advantage of the gullibility of rubes to sell whatever snake oil they are hawking.
My nephew, a very smart fellow, would certainly tell me this is the cost of having a free marketplace of ideas. Perhaps he’s right.
Yet, sometimes I wonder, given what bad guys have made of the internet, will this wonder and its place in the free exchange of ideas, become our downfall? Only time will tell.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.