A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

Life in the Matrix

Up until now in this column I’ve written about various aspects and inventions of the telecommunications revolution, which began, presumably, after Steve Jobs poured out his fifth bucket of bikram-induced sweat, Steve Wozniak downed his last round of Funyuns and Fanta and the two set to work building computer chips in Steve I’s musky, tie-dye-carpeted garage way back in 1970.

I’ve reviewed iconic Internet tools like the meme, the Google Map, LOLspeak and Twitter, and I’ve examined some of the intangible yet noticeable results of techno-living: a scattered attention span, an obsessive love/hate attitude towards our gadgets, a shortsighted and environmentally destructive desire to always have the newest and latest equipment.

With the campaign of pre- and post-election Barack Obama versus four versions of Mitt Romney looming this fall, I would like to turn my attention away from my Newsfeed and toward the effect that the Internet has had on our public and political discourse: our democracy.

If there’s one thing that Democrats and Republicans would like to agree on (other than the suckiness of the other party), it’s that Democracy Is What America Does. America views itself in such an egalitarian, democratic light that its leaders are elected based on their beer-sharing likeability, and they are known to solve communal disputes by sharing the everyman’s beverage with the disputants.

During election season, “Town Hall” meetings are coveted opportunities for a legislative or presidential candidate to show that he has the common touch and can understand the words of someone with less than $1 million in assets. Though recent Supreme Court decisions and police baton-wielding demonstrations on Sproul Plaza might give some cause to doubt the government’s commitment to democracy, overall it appears this country remains a land of checks and balances, measures and countermeasures designed to prevent the ascendancy of anyone who thinks crusading against Islam is a core American value or who would prefer that all people work for the Department of the Interior (though Lord knows I’d like to hike more).

Extreme political maneuvers, outrageous opinions and suggestions of moon colonization tend to be highlighted by mass media outlets, and so our representatives seem to be less and less like Strom Thurmond over time.

But that doesn’t mean brutal unquestioned-belief vs. unquestioned-belief debates do not occur. In fact, the Internet is our Roman forum, our space where we can shout with fervor, type with the force of our convictions, express our highest ideals and then hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

The democratic debate we see on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC et al. is the titrated form of the pure political boiling liquid that churns within the American melting pot. In comparison to practically any website comments discussion, it is very watered down. CNN anchors spazz out over holographic gizmos and election graphics; Fox anchors vacantly stare and sit around on a couch; MSNBC hosts play “Dress up like Ira Glass”. None of them have to wrestle with the blunt and often toxic vitriol that bounces back and forth on Internet boards.

Yet the Internet is an essential source of information and a perfect medium for the conveyance of opinions. While anyone who’s visited a chat room knows that Internet discussion sometimes progresses no farther than does a seminar presented by cavemen voicing guttural mating calls, in more intelligent online arenas there is the possibility of real reasoned argument and mutual learning of important topics. Yet on these topics a common consensus is that UR GAY, black people are criminals by birth and Obama is organizing a conspiratorial Muslim-Socialist coup d’etat of the American democratic system.

As a columnist for The Daily Californian, I’ve been appalled by the sheer animosity and contempt contained in many comments left on this site, by people who tout their own supposed wisdom and experience in the world. It’s disheartening. It’s not that I do not know that hatred and malevolence exist in this world; I am rather saddened that those given the opportunity to freely voice their opinion use it to write vile rhetoric and incite venomous anger. I know that the opinions on Internet comments boards are not usually voiced in public or in class, and it is the anonymity of the medium that allows for confession. It is this tendency to use the concealment of the comments section to fire hateful slander that angers me.

Want to join the KKK or voice your opinion that women are sluts for considering birth control a form of medical insurance? Would you like to use the word “conservative” or “liberal” in the same way you would use the word “demon?” Need an outlet for your bullshit? Go to Sproul Plaza and speak away. Freedom of speech was first up on the Bill of Rights.

We are all welcome to stand in public and speak our minds and peacefully assemble for any cause. Yet doing this requires integrity, or at least accountability: Any Sproul walker can ask the Yoshua-shirt guy why he started his end-of-the-world day count over on his chalkboard, if that makes any sense given his previous logic. The Internet, however, is truly free: On the Internet there is not just the freedom from interference in voicing your opinions, there is the freedom to be invisible, anonymous, a racist or bigoted Wizard of Oz.

The use of Twitter during Egypt’s political upheaval and the recent massive public offering of Facebook show that social media has substantial social and cultural clout. In light of the Trayvon Martin case and the extreme dialogue it has engendered online, it’s up to us as individuals to advocate a web forum of civil and respectful discourse.