23 October, 2009

The Dickwad Theory

Written by: Rev. Tim Moyle, p.p.


2009-10-21
NET WORTH: Contribution of the Internet to public discourse and debate.
John Gabriel, an internet games theorist/programmer, in 2005 developed and published what has come to known as the “Dickwad Theory of the Internet. Understanding this phenomena is as simple as 1 + 2 = 3. Although it has become popularly expressed graphically as a tee shirt design it can be expressed as follows:
One person + anonymity + audience = one “dickwad” opinion
The popularization of this theory is often used to discount comments that are posted in the of comments sections that accompany most online news websites. The virulence and brutish tone of such postings has resulted in most authors, analysts and commentators on current events closing their minds, or at least developing a “tin ear” regarding these virtual expressions of opinion. Fr. Raymond de Souza , a columnist who writes in the “National Post” expressed this well when he recently wrote about comments posted in the blogosphere, : “I could write a column on mowing the lawn and before long the comment threads would degenerate into cracks about pedophilia, etc….”. He may be correct in his assessment but I do not share his confidence.
Alvin Toffler, a futurist writer in the latter part of the 20th century wrote in his seminal books Future Shock and The Third Wave that single constant of realities in our modern life is the ever increasing rapidity of the phenomena of change. He posited that change would break upon both societies and individuals with ever increasing frequency and force such that the essence of survival would spring from the abilities of our structures and citizenry to accept, shape or mould the forces that challenge the status quo.
One does not have to attain an old age to see that Toffler was at least partly right. “Change” has been the catchword for our time. Barack Obama rode into power on the premise that he was going to transform the way things were done in Washington, proudly trumpeting that his was a crusade of CHANGE. Who among us has not purchased some electronic device or another, only to have a new and improved version be released shortly after which renders the purchase (at least in the consciousness of today’s consumer) obsolete. Even in my short 50+ years of life, I have watched with amazement as first LP’s (long playing pressed vinyl records) were replaced by generations of magnetic tape, eight tracks, cassettes, compact discs leading to the point that today it is through the microchips and circuit boards of our computers that we download desired music from a virtual music “stores” such as Apple’s popular “itunes” franchise. Pitied now is the person who made a successful living selling records. (remember Toronto’s famous “Sam the Record Man” no gone from its prominence on Younge Street) It must seem to some that every time one succeeds in building up a library of favourite music, it’s already past time to replace it with something that springs forth from the latest technology.
Yet even in the midst of this process of constant movement and change, one factor seems to remain resolute and unmoved in the midst of this swirling vortex of inconsistency and change: The Dickwad Theory.
The question that Catholic commentators of today need to ask, especially in the light of the tsunami of hostile postings on the net in the wake of recent sex scandals that have rocked the faith of believers, is does the Dickwad theory still apply?
What once were considered to be unrepresentative expression of personal opinion, blogs, comment threads and postings on the internet are now finding their way into the main stream media. CNN has dedicated at least one daily show with Rick Sanchez for what is called “a national conversation”, utilizing real time comments posted on such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter. Political opinion and good old fashioned muckraking, that used to be spoken in quiet whispers in smoky back rooms have become virtualized on pages such as the Drudge Reports which are now considered “source material” for many an investigational work of journalism and a fount of ammunition to defeat a political opponent. Messages posted through Twitter were thought to be instrumental in organizing the demonstrations in countries as cultural far removed from our western democracies and Iran and Burma. Clearly some one is reading these postings and is finding in them sufficient motivation to be willing to be injured or even killed in the name of various causes.
Sociologists and psychologists have long studied the effects on human behaviour of exposure to any number of media forms. Who among us can not say that the ready availability of pornography in its many and sordid manifestation has not served to coarsen our view of sexuality? Why would producers the world over spend countless billions of dollars in advertising if repeated exposure to their commercials did not, in some way, influence our opinions so that we would convince ourselves that we “need” the latest incarnation of their products? Clearly exposure to messages repeated ad nausium has the capacity to change our opinions. It has the capacity to render inert long held convictions so as to make a person more malleable to a particular agenda. In short, it is powerful: something to be respected and listened to.
Much of what is posted as comment on the net is indeed specious, vacuous and simplistic. Yet their ready accessibility to anyone who uses the internet as a primary source of news and opinion means that, just as John Stewart is now considered a valid news source by an entire generation, so too can these mediums be used a weapons with which to bring down powerful institutions and individuals.
Adolph Hitler was able, with a few oft repeated words first spoken aloud in a Bavarian pub, to turn a nation long held as being the paragon of culture and civilization into a regime dedicated the genocide and conquest, all within the space of a few years and with early 20th century means of communication. How much more effective would he have been if instead, he had been able to promote his views to millions from the start? I do not know the answer to this question, but I know enough to be concerned with the possibilities.
So, too I believe should be the Catholic Church in Canada as it confronts media coverage and comment which is growing ever more hostile to its mission. Amongst the rabid and bigoted messages , there are others proposing “rational” or “reasonable” actions such as calling for Parliamentary inquiries to delve into whether the plethora of sexual abuse and perversions within its’ ranks has reached a point where it should be considered as a criminal organization?” After all, what percentage of motorcycle enthusiasts needs to be committing a crime before their groups are considered organized crime? Should perhaps the civil rights of privacy be completely respected among the ranks of the clergy, or should some authority have the right to investigate to ensure that victims are not being abused, – a situation where priests might need to prove their innocence rather than the state proving guilt? Messages such as these are becoming more and more prevalent among the chaff. All of this of course is proposed in the spirit of “protecting” the vulnerable members of society.
Lest these remarks be considered exaggerations, I pose the following for consideration. 1. Abortion was once considered a horrific crime, worthy of a substantial period of incarceration: now people go to jail for protesting its ubiquitous presence in our culture.
2. Assisted suicide and euthanasia were the stuff of medical horror novels: now they are “des rigeur,” quietly practiced in many of our health care institutions.
3. Attendance at church on Sundays used to be a sign of intelligence and faith: now people are often even ashamed to admit to being Roman Catholic and, who now may attend church at Christmas and Easter.
Change is indeed the constant of our life. We ignore the new expressions of opinions expressed so freely and distributed so broadly across the web at our own peril. We had better take heed of the lessons of history, lest we become the voices of those whose opinions will be ignored as falling within the rubric of the Dickwad Theory of the Internet.

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