The cat is out of the bag (wow)

“Wow!” I said. I was talking to my colleague Dave Powell, who had just discovered full-length, reasonably high-resolution copies of the movie “Tomb Raider” in several archives on the Internet (the film is not due for release until mid-year) and this pointed out just how insidious piracy has become.

I said “wow” again a few seconds later when I had a revelation: The Internet, rather like a black hole, has swallowed us and we can never go back. By “swallowed us,” I mean that the ‘net has consumed our whole society. The cultural implications of the Internet are far greater than the transformations wrought by the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution because of the speed and scope of the changes involved.

Take the change in the work habits of millions of people due to the Internet. Not only has telecommuting become significantly more common, but many people work completely differently due to e-mail. E-mail allows a more demanding contact with our companies and customers, and it fosters new stresses and strains on our lives.

But the real issues arise in the areas of morals and ethics. I’ve written extensively about the moral issues of stealing music through downloading MP3 files, but there’s a whole universe of other ethical problems that the Internet enables simply because the ‘net allows anonymity and access to thoughts and ideas in ways undreamt of in history.

People with warped or deviant interests can virtually indulge them on-line without fear of exposure and consequent social ostracism. Like the idea of dressing in rubber, or being humiliated? Or being dressed as and treated like a baby despite being a “mature adult”? On the ‘net, you can explore these issues to your heart’s content and no one will know you’re a pervert. Does that matter?

Want to view extreme porn or look at photographs of accidents or see autopsies or learn how to make bombs and kill people with poison? It’s all there, waiting for your prurient interest to find.

And now we have a new ethical problem – materials on the ‘net that are, in effect, cartoons of taboo and illegal events and practices.

For example, are animations of pornography really pornography? How about animations of “snuff” films (films depicting people being murdered) – are they the same as the real thing? How about cartoons of “kiddie porn”? Is that the same as real kiddie porn?

These kinds of materials are extremely problematic. If we say they aren’t to be tolerated, then are we saying that we accept the need for what could be seen as the “thought police” (remember, they aren’t real)? That’s a dangerous path to follow. Without the ‘net, these ethical problems wouldn’t exist in public discourse – they would have stayed below the public radar and would have been ignored. So, what do we do?

It has been argued that making this dreck available is in the interests of society – it gives the disturbed and perverted a channel to blow off steam. The opposite has also been argued – that the availability of such materials creates rather than neutralizes the more monstrous desires of our more twisted fellows. I have yet to see proof either way.

But as a society should we tolerate public availability of such materials on the Internet? Should we allow even the smallest chance that our children should stumble unwittingly into such things?

I have no answers (no big surprise there) but I have concerns about the kind of society we will become if we don’t develop a public ethic that allows us to deal rationally rather than emotionally with these problems.

But the ethical and moral cats are out of the bag, along with the hundreds and thousands of other issues that the Internet raises, and there’s no way that they are going to be rebagged.

“Wow” doesn’t began to cover it.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at