Sometimes progress is completely detestable, such as the invention of robotic telephone answering services that replace human operators with a series of frustrating prompts (and if you don’t agree, Press 1 Now).
Sometimes progress is a mixed bag, bringing blessings as well as curses. The Internet is the prime modern example. It is a boon to mankind, bringing the wisdom of the world to one’s fingerprints, making people connected as never before. You can visit the pyramids and send a tweet to Aunt Gladys, saying “I’m at the pyramids!” You can even send Aunt Gladys a photo of yourself with a puzzled-looking camel. Our forefathers would have loved this harnessing of modern technology to an old-fashioned sense of the absurd.
But the Internet also has been the bane of many traditional occupations. It is not just newspapers adversely affected. The U.S. Postal Service has lost traditional mail to email, leading to a reduction in the number of postal workers. If this continues, America’s dogs will have nothing to bark at.
And how about the skilled workers who used to pack pornographic magazines into brown paper packages for discreet home delivery? Many have been made redundant by the Internet, which not only brings wisdom to one’s fingerprints but also nudity. The laid-off workers suffer embarrassment at the unemployment office when they have to list their previous work experience.
But for my money the worst thing about the Internet is that it has empowered the faint-hearted in the Home of the Brave, those cowardly lions who like to wear the yellow coat of anonymity in order to roar insults at other people in blogs or emails.
Of course, anonymous letters were not unknown to other generations, but at least the cowardly ones had to buy a stamp and suffer the humiliation of paying for their own vitriol. Today, thanks to the Internet, it is easy and cost-free to send a nasty anonymous message or post a blog of unknown origin.
A Page One story this week in The New York Times is emblematic of how far the rot has spread.
Headlined “In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious,” the story describes how in the small town of Mountain Grove, Mo., a center of gossip was always a diner called Dee’s Place. Now townspeople are anonymously dishing the dirt about their neighbors on a social media website and causing fights and divorces. The diner’s owner described the site as a “cesspool of character assassination.”
This is not right, and not just because character assassination should be left to the professionals on the editorial pages of newspapers.
If you can’t depend on country folk to behave according to the traditional rules of small-town gossip, talking behind people’s backs while enjoying eggs and bacon with home fries, then who can you trust anymore? At least a chance existed that the target of the gossip might walk in and punch the gossiper in the nose or pour maple syrup over his overalls.
Of course, where I came from, the manly understanding was that if you wanted to say something bad about someone, you walked up to them, you looked them straight in the eye and you said: “I am here to give you a piece of mind, but I see you are 7 feet tall with muscles that have their own subsidiary muscles, so I’ll just be off to have some eggs and bacon at the diner in the hope of becoming bigger!”
The trouble is that they invented the Internet but forgot to invent an etiquette to go with it. This has brought out the worst in people. While I am no Ms. Manners, I am from time to time the recipient of anonymous email in varying degrees of vileness, because nobody is so bitter as the guy who doesn’t get the joke.
I understand that the old forms of courtesy for handwritten or typed letters do not suit electronic means of communication, especially if sent from a BlackBerry or iPhone. Already typing at a frantic rate, people may dislocate their thumbs typing such niceties as “Sincerely yours.”
That is why the new etiquette for emails and blogs should insist on one simple thing — a name, a token of identification that the writer is not just another snake in the grass. They should teach this in schools in lessons about values. This would be progress, and while the axiom teaches that all progress isn’t, it is also true that some progress is.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.