Searching for the Root of Good and Evil
by Phil Benton
Since the celebration of the web’s twenty-fifth birthday, I’ve been pondering the question of how human behavior has changed as a result of the overwhelming volume of information and entertainment literally at our finger tips. God knows there’s been endless debate on this subject. I’ve read countless rants about today’s digital world and how it’s responsible, in part or wholly, for an increase in violent behavior, as well as the overall decline of our civilization. Perhaps I’m naïve, or just too obtuse to grasp the enormity of the hand-basket that rockets us all to hell; however, I remain of the opinion that human behavior has changed very little since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, or the wheel for that matter.
One can hardly make it through a day without hearing some commentary on the link between violent crime and digital media. Be it music, film, or digital gaming, all of these have been conveniently linked to an increase in immoral or violent behavior. The sad truth of the matter is we, as humans, have been buggering, dismembering, crucifying, lynching, and torturing one another since we grew a thumb and a brain. And what’s more, we can’t get enough of it. Our thirst for blood and titillation has neither increased, nor decreased throughout time. There are simply more of us now on the planet. Granted, there are more convenient and accessible ways to get our fix of human suffering but, in my opinion accessibility does not infer cause. After all, it’s more convenient to buy gasoline at the corner mini-mart but, do we use more as a result? I doubt it. What is different however, is the sheer volume of horror stories covered by the print and digital media services. In an age of instant communication, it’s easy to assume that violent behavior is at an all-time high. But, does an increase in the coverage of violent behavior really infer an actual escalation of violent events? I think not. We simply have a larger, more competitive information market, all vying for the advertising dollar. What do consumers want? They want salacious stories of death and misery. Journalists, as well as the entertainment industry, have always peddled blood, gut, and smut because it sells. Cashing in on the prurient and sadistic interest of humans has been big business since recorded time. Just ask those poor folks who headlined the show at the Coliseum in Rome. We, as humans, just can’t get enough. Supply and demand has revolutionized the information and entertainment marketplace. Increased competition, diversity of product, and worldwide coverage combine to create the illusion that today’s humans are somehow more threatening, sexual, or dangerous than our predecessors who gathered around the old console to watch Father Knows Best. I simply don’t buy it. We are just faced with a larger volume of information and insight into whom and what we really are. And folks, it ain’t too pretty.
One can argue that our so-called “information age” is responsible not for changing human behavior, but rather fully exposing it. Consider the various “basic needs” that, psychologists say, dictate our behavior as humans. We behave in a manner that will maximize the probability of meeting our perceived needs. Since our systems for communication and entertainment play such an integral role in satisfying certain basic needs, any change to these systems will have a tremendous societal impact. Along with this change comes all of the pushing and pulling from folks coming to grips with it. Consider, for example, how long it takes for government to act on issues, even if said issue is considered to be of great importance. There is rarely popular consensus in the way we humans view the world we inhabit, much less agree on how to make it better or worse. We perceive our needs differently. Further, we, as humans, tend to view disruptions in our daily lives with great suspicion. The digital revolution has been more than a slap in the face to many folks that were satisfied with the way things were “back in the old days”. I suspect there are many around us that feel more like they have suddenly landed on an alien planet.
So, I continue to ponder the impact of our digital revolution and this thing we call the World Wide Web. Being a bit older, I enjoy the perspective of one that has experienced both the pre and post-digital planet. In my experience, little has changed in the way of human behavior or our innate instinct to pursue basic needs as we perceive them. If we wish to nourish the positive aspects of our nature we will in turn, utilize all tools at our disposal to achieve that end. Those wishing to do evil will do likewise. Therein, to me, lies the answer. For all the information at our fingertips, we as humans have the same free will to act on, or control our behavior as we always have throughout time.
Think about it.