Editorial – Nothing Virtual About It

When L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, It’s a safe bet he wasn’t thinking about the Internet. Today, though, Baum’s book is a good parallel for how most of us think of the Net: just like Dorothy opened the door and stepped into Oz, we tend to view what happens online as a magical virtual world that doesn’t have much to do with reality.

And That’s a dangerous illusion, because in spite of the increasing overlap between man and machine we haven’t yet done away with one important factor: human emotions.

The illusion, perhaps, is understandable. After all, machines are fulfilling human roles more and more every day. Television acts as babysitter, entertainer, and role model. For millions, the text on a computer or cell phone screen replaces live human interaction, even though pixels of conversation can’t compare to the subtleties of a live exchange with another person. The computer in your car will you talk to you in almost any voice you choose, guiding you and encouraging you on a journey.

Yet we owe no respect or courtesy to the technology we interact with every day. We can yell at the GPS system or call our malfunctioning phone a ?skank.? The GPS won’t get upset and the phone doesn’t care.

It’s no surprise that this kind of social conditioning spills over to the Internet, but there’s a key difference: behind the hyperlinks lie real people. It’s an important distinction that was demonstrated when Liskula Cohen, a Canadian model, won the right to unmask an anonymous blogger who was writing venomous comments about her. And it was seen, tragically, in the case of a Missouri mother whose cruel and humiliating online hoax played a role in a 13-year-old neighbour girl’s suicide.

There have always been (and always will be) people who scrawl insults on bathroom walls then sneak away, the old-fashioned equivalent of an anonymous blog. The Internet simply adds the enticing illusion that none of it is real. That it doesn’t affect anyone. That when we turn the machine off, much like Dorothy’s dream it all disappears, including the feelings and reactions of the people on the other end.

Except that isn’t the way it works. We can fool ourselves that the guiding voice of a GPS is somehow real. We can marvel at the increasingly human-like robots being created. Science, however, has yet to succeed at turning humans into machines. Artificial limbs and joints, yes. Emotions, no.

Which means that even though the Internet may sometimes seem like a parallel world, a vast and virtual landscape, the things we say and do there matter in a very flesh and blood way. Posting photos or a blog is no different than walking up to a bulletin board in a public square and tacking up a handwritten note. People are affected, even if we don’t see them.

Technology may one day allow us to overwrite human emotions as easily as we post comments on the Internet. But until that day comes, there’s nothing virtual about it.