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The end of ethics!?

The other day tantalizing excerpt from an Associated Press item was posted to a mailing list that I'm on. It seems that an Iraqi government newspaper has declared the Internet "the end of civilizations, cultures, interests and ethics." The computer network "is one of the American means to enter every house in the world," al-Jumhuriya said in an editorial. "They want to become the only source for controlling human beings in the new electronic village." It seems there are two charges here--first that the Internet is going to zap the world as they know it and second that the US is doing the zapping. It might be easy to dismiss this as the laments of latter-day Luddites but they have managed to be both totally right and totally wrong about the first charge -- they are clearly wrong about the second.

Their use of the words "civilizations" and "cultures" is interesting and accurate. They did not say "countries" or "nations". These are too often artificial constructs whose borders were established through conflict, negotiation or by the capricious whim of remote powers. Cultures generally respect these types of borders about as well as the Internet does. The Internet clearly can have, and is likely to have, a major destabilizing impact on civilizations and cultures maintained by controlling the access of the citizens to alternative views or to accurate news of internal events. Some people might claim that the idea that the strength of a culture is related to its openness to hear the views of others and its ability to deal with those views in its own context is some strange western idealism. They fear that the people could get confused. It is that type of thinking that led to the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

The Internet can be a supporter of some cultures just as easily as it can be a threat to others. The low cost of having a presence on the Internet can be used to provide a focus to preserve a culture that might otherwise die due to a small membership or geographic dispersion. Tribal histories that might otherwise be forgotten and tribal languages which might wither from disuse can be kept alive for future generations. Some cultures will be effected more than others, both positively and negatively, by the ability of people to communicate with few restrictions.

The Iraqi editorial is internally self contradicting. They say that the Internet is an American plot to dominate the world and imply that they are powerless to stop it. But in saying that, they gloss over the fact that they too can exploit this media. Not as well as governments can exploit television however, since the distribution, other than for direct satellite broadcasts, is under local enough management that governments can, and frequently do, dictate what is shown and not shown. The many-to-many nature of the Internet makes this type of control much harder. It is an environment where Hezbollah can have a web page (they do) at the same time that the CIA does. If the Internet is an American plot, we are being rather lax about who we let join the plot. And I do not have a clue as to why the Internet means the end of ethics.

disclaimer: There are many opinions at Harvard about culture, ranging from the Biology Department to the Anthropology Department but the above are mine.