Biblical Advice for the Internet Age ii

In last week’s post, I described how Internet 2.0 – technologies undergirding Facebook, Youtube, ubiquitous personalized search, etc. – has steadily eroded privacy and turned our lives increasingly into that akin to aquarium fishes: every bit of information is quickly becoming public, the homes we live in are almost becoming glass houses. On the one hand, this increased transparency is a democratic dream come true. Many wrongdoers have been exposed because of the electronic trail they left behind. Technology has even empowered ordinary citizens, who can now pick up the electronic trail of their elected leaders’ wrongdoing.

But is there also an “on the other hand,” a dark underbelly to this great feast of transparency?

The launch of Friendster in 2002 kickstarted the social network era. Quickly, a bunch of competitors joined the fray, including Myspace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. Not long after that, stories started reaching the media about people who were denied jobs because of their social network postings. Drunkenness, immodesty (not necessarily nudity), rowdiness and other crude behavior, as well as posts and comments comments explicitly mentioning a company or a colleague were often the reason for denying a job application, or even for firing an employee. In one case I found, even insurance coverage was denied , and I am not talking about outright insurance fraud, which is a crime; this was for celebrating one’s birthday while being depressed, and the posts were set to private.

Problems grew exponentially with tagging, the practice of adding tags to pictures and videos, that could, for example, establish a link between a media file and someone being depicted in it, despite the fact that that media file had not been posted by the eventual victim. Suddenly, one’s reputation could sink despite never having posted anything compromising. It sufficed for someone else, usually a friend, to post compromising information. The problem is so common that columns, forum threads and even entire web sites are dedicated to the issue.

So what’s the solution? Should we demand a right to be forgotten? It won’t work. The problem is first and foremost social.

While the disappearance of privacy may be a good thing insofar as society has become more transparent, and that may in turn encourage people to remain civil and honest at all times, it also hurts people, many people. The impersonal nature of internet communications gives us a false impression of seclusion. If in the past the proverb walls have ears rang true, all the more so today, when private communications are easily leaked or mistakenly publicized to the world and indexed for eternity. One wonders whether the biblical prophet Micah’s advise (6:8) should not perhaps more than ever become our guiding principle: He has showed you, O man, what is good … but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk modestly with your God. Modesty is actually a natural, instinctive quality, the desire for privacy comes quite naturally to us, and should be encouraged; our lives need not be an open book. The impersonal nature of the internet may have helped us further erode this character trait, but paradoxically, it may be the most crucial trait for avoiding the sting of our digital age, while enjoying its many benefits.

Now it would be legitimate to ask whether I am not suggesting something perverse, namely, by not suggesting that we always lead modest lives, merely be modest on line, that I am actually encouraging immoral behavior. In fact, it is true that our real goal is to lead modest lives. And that includes behaving modestly even when not under the glare of our friends’ cell phone cameras; Micah was not talking about merely avoiding immodest, compromising Facebook posts and Flickr photos.

However, I still want to argue for the value of putting a particular emphasis of maintaining a chaster on line profile. First of all, the impersonal nature of internet communications has a very uninhibiting effect. And once our sins are out before all to see, it desensitizes us, and encourages more compromising behavior, so the first step in leading a more private life is to shut off our broadcasting channels, especially since we all understand we may very well regret broadcasting our lives on the billboard of Main Street, Everywhere.

Secondly, not broadcasting everything will also make us less likely to film everything. Instead of living for the camera, we will be living for life. It’s fun to pose, and we do many great things for the sake of preserving them for posterity, but there should be a limit. Nowadays people film their most intimate moments, too, though when such videos leak, one wonders what they had been thinking. So more modesty in virtual appearance will help us return to living for the experience’s sake.

Finally, I’d like to cite here from the Talmud, Qidushin 40a:

אמר רבי אלעאי הזקן אם רואה אדם שיצרו מתגבר עליו ילך למקום שאין מכירין אותו וילבש שחורים ויתכסה שחורים ויעשה כמו שלבו חפץ ואל יחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא איני והתניא כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו ראוי לו שלא בא לעולם מה היא … רב יוסף אומר זה העובר עבירה בסתר לא קשיא הא דמצי כייף ליצריה והא דלא מצי כייף ליצריה

R. Il’ai the Elder said: If a man sees that his [evil] desire is conquering him, let him go to a place where he is unknown, don black and cover himself with black, and do as his heart desires, but let him not publicly profane G”d’s name. But that is not so, for we learnt: He who is careless of his Master’s honour, it were well for him that he had not come Into the world. Now, to what does this refer? — … R. Joseph said: To one who secretly  transgresses! — There is no difficulty: the one means where he can subdue his evil desires; the  other, where he cannot.

As we saw, innocent people do suffer. In their ordinary, daily lives. That said, most of those people don’t see their lives destroyed by social networks. Removing the offending material, and otherwise maintaining a chaste presence on line may suffice to let them move on.

Other people are not so lucky. Their case will be featured next week.

2 Responses to Biblical Advice for the Internet Age ii

  1. […] is the third of four instalments on internet privacy and Biblical values. Last week we discussed how peoples’ professional and even social life suffers from the excess […]

  2. […] and final instalment in the series Biblical Advice for the Internet Age. [Previous instalments: I, II and […]

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