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Examining the Net's Link to Tragedy

March 31, 1997|JONATHAN WEBER

The news of the Rancho Santa Fe mass suicide had barely hit the wires last week when a now-familiar rallying cry began to echo through cyberspace: Don't Blame the Internet.

Just because the Heaven's Gate adherents had a Web design company and proselytized on the global computer network doesn't mean the Internet had anything to do with their deaths, numerous Net activists and online journalists asserted. And down with The Media for daring to suggest any such connection.

Now I'm generally sympathetic to the online world's fear of being tarred as a nefarious place populated mainly by pornographers, stalkers and assorted fraudsters. Many TV news organizations, magazines and newspapers--including this one on occasion--have perpetuated inaccurate stereotypes of cyberspace. Real damage has been done, mainly in the form of the awful censorship law known as the Communications Decency Act.

Yet even as I did my part last week to assure that our own coverage of the suicides treated the Internet angle responsibly, I was feeling uneasy with many Net defenders' knee-jerk leap to the barricades. To dismiss out of hand the possible significance of the links between the Net and the cult seemed facile, even defiant of common sense.

A group of people who have a Web design company dress up in "Star Trek" suits, kill themselves in order to be transported and leave a record of their beliefs all over the Internet--and we're not even supposed to explore the relationship between the technology and the tragedy?

Well, no. The Internet is only a tool, a mirror of society, a neutral medium. "Don't Blame the Bits," instructed the online magazine Hot Wired in the early hours of the media frenzy. The New York Times' second-day coverage included a peculiar piece that read like an apologia for the Net, with the top of the story consisting of background about what the Net is and how it is used, and the exploration of the Internet/cult connection--the ostensible subject--coming only at the bottom.

As it turns out, old-fashioned reporting--including some solid work by online journalists--soon showed that the Internet was, in fact, a fairly minor aspect of this baroque story. And it was ultimately treated as such by most of the media.

But the eagerness of many in the online world to dismiss the Internet angle at the outset is emblematic of an all-too-common disingenuousness about the nature of cyberspace and the consequences of new technologies.

It seems obvious, for example, that the Internet is an especially comfortable and useful medium for fringe groups of all sorts. Whereas a mainstream religious organization might have TV and radio stations and magazines to bind the flock together and recruit members, a handful of people waiting for a spaceship have no such resources. The Internet gives them a voice.

Netizens assure us that the Net's ability to nurture diverse communities and give anyone a means to be heard is mostly a good thing. But why is it responsible journalism to write about lonely people turning to the Net for enriching human relationships, while it's Net-bashing to suggest that lonely people might turn to the Net and find a destructive cult?

The Internet's most zealous defenders too often seem unwilling to confront the consequences of their own ideology. Let's face it: Free speech can be an ugly thing. All kinds of nut cases can preach all kinds of dangerous stuff, and sometimes people get hurt.

In response to a news story about teenagers who made a bomb from a recipe found on the Internet, online activists righteously declare that the recipe could have been found in a book; the technology isn't to blame. But let's not kid ourselves: most public libraries don't carry the "Anarchist Cookbook." The Internet does make it easier to build home-made bombs.

Although it's true, broadly speaking, that the Internet reflects social trends more than it creates them, it's also true that media shape society. Is television a value-free technology whose existence per se is irrelevant to our culture? I don't think so.

This reluctance to address the obvious applies, perhaps even more profoundly, to the very idea of technological progress itself. Netizens tend to regard with contempt those who fear what the Internet and other new technologies might bring. But people have good reason to be afraid. Technological change creates enormous dislocations, and as it accelerates it is shattering all kinds of social institutions and the security they often provide.

The educated elites who inhabit the Internet are, in many respects, the beneficiaries of all this upheaval, so their position is at the very least self-serving. Whether most people will ultimately be better off is, of course, unknown.

Rather than smugly dismiss those who regard Heaven's Gate as a disturbing expression of technologically assisted alienation, the defenders of the Internet need to be more accepting of scrutiny, and better able to articulate why others should share their vision.

Jonathan Weber is editor of the Cutting Edge. He can be reached via e-mail at

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