Friday, March 16, 2012

The many unintended consequences of technology

Do you feel sorry for Dharun Ravi, who was today found guilty on 15 counts, including bias intimidation? Ravi used his computer webcam to spy on his college room-mate, and boasted about it on his public Twitter account: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” The room-mate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide a few days later. Ravi could go to prison for up to ten years, where, thanks to a collective American view that prisoners deserve to get raped, he may get first-hand experience of the sorts of activities he was spying on. This very detailed article by the New Yorker reveals a world, which despite my blogging and Facebooking, is alien to me - a world where online interactions appear to have much more value that face-to-face ones, yet at the same time, that value was still hugely under-estimated by those involved.

The two prospective roommates researched each other even before they had met - with Ravi disapproving of Clementi because he might have been poor, and finding out that he was gay through finding out about Clementi's participation in the gay porn forum Justusboys. Even the fact that Clementi had a yahoo email account rather than a gmail account was judged as uncool and therefore unacceptable. Clementi also researched Ravi, and was rather sniffy about Ravi's parents - “sooo Indian first gen americanish,” adding that they “defs owna dunkin”. (Dunkin' Donuts franchise).

By the time they had met, the two room-mates knew enough about each other to form opinions that would be hard to shake. While they had each other's mobile phone numbers (Clementi texted Ravi to ask for access to the room when he was meeting his boyfriend) - face-to-face interaction appears to have been much less frequent or important, the two don't seem to have discussed Clementi's sexuality for example.

Having checked Ravi's Twitter account countless times on the last two days of his life, Clementi went to the George Washington Bridge, downloaded the Facebook app to his phone and then posted a final, awful update "“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Ravi sent him two text messages, trying to apologise, but when he realised what had happened, he tried to alter his earlier, damning Twitter messages. Weirdly, Clementi's body was found by a gay man called Jim Swimm who is a member of Swish, a group dedicated to LGBT rights.

Ravi's trial was based on invasion of privacy, bias indimitation and tampering with evidence rather than driving someone to suicide. He had been previously offered a plea-bargain offer - no jail time, no deportation to India and 600 hours of community service if he pleaded guilty. He refused it, in hindsight a mistake - and perhaps another example of someone who does not really understand the consequences of his decisions.

This is not a pleasant story and the response on internet forums has not been pleasant either - with many people writing "send him back to India". The defence case was that Ravi was an immature 18-year old (a tautology) rather than a homophobic bully. The charge of immaturity isn't really at issue here - I don't think he was particularly immature for 18 - but was just acting like a typical 18 year old - with very little consideration for others or for the consequences of his own actions. When I think of some of the stupid things I did at 18, I still blush with humiliation. But at least when I was 18, the internet was no more than a bunch of computers connecting a handful of universities together, so none of my teenage stupidity and poor decision-making was both recorded for all posterity and shared around the world.

Young people tend to adapt to new technologies very quickly (my 8 year old nephew has recently worked out how to use "series record" and has filled up his mother's DVR with episodes of Loony Tunes and Star Wars Clone Wars). Although familiarity with technology can hide a grasp of its real-world consequences. And I worry that there are so many ways that young people in particular can have their lives ruined by the technology that is so ubiquitous. Another example is the #ToMyUnbornChild Twitter trend. It only takes one person on Twitter to post something dripping in nihilism and hatred like "ToMyUnbornChild i'll kill you if you were gay!", and before long, everyone's doing it. Looking at the faces of those who've posted up such messages, it's a gallery of mostly young people, who, in their own little peer groups will probably gain a measure of validation and hetero-credibility for their take-no-prisoners stance. And if such comments had stayed in their little social circle, probably very little damage would be done to themselves. But now the world is watching... always watching. And such tweets can come back to haunt you any time - raising their ugly heads at your next job application...

Perhaps there will come a tipping point in a few years, when almost everyone has an embarrassing drunk, half-naked picture of themselves online or an offensive tweet - and so it will all get cancelled out and not matter any more. Perhaps I am of the last generation that will ever view privacy as normal and necessary. The consequences of these new technologies are still emerging, and appear to be speeding up rather than slowing down. Future generations may be instinctively more savvy when it comes to what they decide to share. The web still feels like the Wild West in many ways, with very few rules and no sense of global etiquette. An interesting time to be online. But not necessarily a safe time either.

No comments: