Technology, as I have mentioned in a previous post, sucks. This is not to say however that the things technology brings us also suck – many of these things are fantastic things, such as the Internet, smartphones and GPS. These things help set our minds free and cast off some of our physical shackles. As anyone who works in the field of high tech crime knows though, people are endlessly innovative in their ability to adapt the latest scientific breakthroughs for the purposes of being beastly to others.
Take SMS texting, for example – cheap, easy, a great way of sending a quick communication when you can’t be bothered with a phone call. And what do we see? Bullying by text. Grooming by text. Threats to kill by text. Harassment by text. Malicious communications by text. Facebook? The same, but with the added bonus of groups – why be a lone voice being horrible to someone when you can form a group to do it and attract a thousand like-minded haters?
Or Youtube. Stop for a moment and consider the awesomeness of being able to video your surroundings on a phone and, with the press of a button, make it available to billions worldwide. How incredible is that? It’s a miracle, it’s a technology that can unite peoples and amplify one oppressed voice a million-fold. This machine kills fascists, as Woody Guthrie said of his guitar. It’s also great for posting videos of your giggling mate slapping an unsuspecting stranger, or arsehole neds driving stolen cars around their estate. What a piece of work is man, indeed.
The subject would make for an interesting academic paper, come to think of it – ‘Shouting ‘Arsebiscuits’ in a Crowded Internet: The Misappropriation of Technology for the Purpose of Being Nasty to People’ by Dr Happy Monkey. I could discuss the evolution and variety of electronic nastiness over the years. And you know what? I think I’ll jot down some ideas here.
One of the earliest recorded incidents of adapting a new technology to the purposes of malicious lolz was also the first known happy-slapping incident. In 1926 a gang of surrealist artists took a photo (left, click to embiggen) of one of their number shouting insults at a priest in a Belgian village. They claimed artistic privilege and I’m inclined to believe that this was indeed their motive – taking a photo in 1926 wasn’t a matter of pointing a phone and pressing a button, it was a bit more involved. They called their photo ‘Our Colleague Benjamin Peret in the Act of Insulting a Priest’ and this title was quite prescient for the future of techno-trashing, as our contemporary hooligans also lack the common sense to disguise their identities. An aggravating factor to the 1926 incident was that the perpetrator appears to be wearing a tank top. Now that is offensive.
The eye-popping array of technology we have at our disposal these days gives us so much scope for being offensive to people. Even the most basic of devices, a simple bluetooth phone, can be adapted – change the device name to something rude, and try to transfer a file to a random bluetooth device on the train – bingo, you’ve caused offence regardless of what the file contained. Similarly, change your wireless network’s SSID to something insulting and you can offend your neighbours whenever they try to connect. Bruce Schneier may dismiss this as ‘obscenity through obscurity’, but we’re not purists here.
No one is immune to being insulted over the ether. Take the grooming paedophile (Please! Someone take the grooming paedophile!). Many’s the time I’ve been looking through the chat logs of one of these hell-bound degenerates and seen him suffering the rancour of a would-be victim – kids aren’t as articulate as what they once woz, but ‘dirty fukin pedo’ has been bandied about often enough to warrant its own acronym, and I suppose it serves its purpose.
Even the lovelorn urban romantic can’t escape being griefed online. http://thatsmygirlasshole.blogspot.com/ is the work of a man who reads the ‘missed connections’ on Craigslist, you know the ‘You were the beautiful redhead on the escalator in Waterstones last Friday, I was the guy wearing Speedos and a merkin being escorted out by security – wanna meet?’ things? He then replies to as many as he can saying ‘That’s my girlfriend, asshole’. Nothing else, just that. Just for the giggles. Good job it’s funny, or it’d just be mean.
This sort of internet unpleasantness has a long heritage. When I first plugged a cat5 into my basal ganglia back in 1994, the internet was starting to see waves of immigration from noobs, the worst of whom were the AOLers. Like a busload of American tourists descending on a mountain-top Sinai monastery, the AOLers disturbed the refined peace of the internet – they cross-posted on Usenet, top-quoted in their replies, sent binaries to non-binary newsgroups…their sins were many and dreadful. Looking back at the early days of this (1990-1991) on Usenet, the response was helpful but terse – advice was given once and once only, after that transgressors would get the full weight of a greybeard’s ire, usually in the form of a long, withering put-down. By the end of the 1990s, matters had got a bit more serious and noobs asking stupid questions would be directed to Goatse, where they would be permanently scarred by the sight of a man doing uncomfortable things to his own bottom, in glorious colour.
The ‘directing someone to Goatse’ trick became so common that some sites, Slashdot for example, introduced systems to warn unsuspecting users before the link was clicked. Over time, Goatse faded away and in latter years people have been redirected to videos of Rick Astley singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, a far gentler way of sending someone to /dev/null. There was a brief revival with those two girls and their cup, but this fizzled out surprisingly quickly.
So does this mean that we are into a new golden age of internet civility and mutual respect? No, does it bollocks. There is still organised griefing, as a peep into 4Chan will tell you. There are groups descended from the Chans that exist solely for the purposes of lol-based online harassment, not least of all the ‘Anonymous’ phenomenon that attacked Scientology in 2008. It is this monkey’s opinion though that social networking sites have changed the nastiness landscape for ever. Rather than create a horribleness and leave it out there for people to find, it’s so much easier to directly attack people you don’t like through their Facebook pages, or by creating Youtube videos about them.
Still, it keeps us in work.
This post was brought to you with the help of The Clash, P.P. Arnold, Teriyaki Boyz, The Mountain Goats, The Pet Shop Boys and Motorhead. Gotta love that shuffle!