Thursday, May 29, 2008

"proof" that the internets is a scary place to dwell

vancouver is abuzz with the news, and the notion, that a young couple would try and sell their seven-day-old baby on the popular online classifieds page craigslist. this post is neither about the morality of such an act nor an investigation of the act itself. it is about the media framing around the decision to attempt to sell a baby on the interwebs, and how, as always when it comes to media portrayals of the internets, this "proves" that cyberspace is a dangerous, and potentially (culturally) damaging, place to dwell.

as the story goes, on tuesday may 27, 2008, a 60 year-old woman browsing the website came across a ad tagline that read MUST HAVE!!!!!!!!! and upon opening it, discovered the advertised "product" was a "very cute" baby girl. having a number of grandchildren of her own, this woman informed the police in the event it was not a joke or a hoax. police then tracked the couple down in the west end apartment through the cellphone number provided in the ad. the couple was arrested for public mischief and the child has been removed from their care.

interestingly, the immediate local media coverage of this event focused on the woman who reported the posting, who was said to believe in angels and who was being touted as a heroine. much of the emphasis on this woman neglected the fact that craigslist is a self-regulating community meaning that members (users) flag posts for any number of reasons from level of appropriateness to general maintenance and organization of the site. no doubt this woman did the "right thing" in reporting inappropriate behaviour, but her actions reflect what is expected of craiglist users. as an "internet user" (the identifying label under her name explained), this woman was held up as an exemplar of the regulating morality the internet is understood to lack. thus, the wild west imagery associated with the internet persists while self-regulating communities like craiglist have been operating since pre-web days.

my frustration with this story reflects a broader frustration with popular culture notions of the internet as a scary place, and moreover, a place where social rules and mores are somehow non-existent. we do not become different people on the internet, we bring our identities, our problems, our life circumstances online with us. there is no break between ourselves online and off. the fluidity of our experience is captured in our presentations and representations online. this young couple is having a bad time. their baby was unexpected. instead of dumping it on a hospital doorstep, or setting it free on a bed of reeds, they turned to another everyday aspect of their lives, the internet. this does not reflect the depravity of contemporary existence. it reflects the different ways that people have to do what they have been doing forever - even if it reflects a part of humanity that makes us uncomfortable, that is the fact that some children are unexpected, and ultimately not wanted.

this story has a particularly gendered and normalized aspect to it as well, which ultimately accompanies any critical investigation into constructions of technology. it is better therefore, to think of this young couple as "known to police," familiar with drugs, and generally monstrous - and taking that monstrosity to that place of anonymous, dangerous, unregulated danger: the internet - than to think about the structural conditions of their lives. the poverty that would lead them to such an act, the desperation they must feel. the internet is a place to blame that doesn't talk back, that will remain a place of fear until we recognize that we are the internet. the constitutive force behind the technology we produce, enable, and use.

technology is the humanity of today, not the danger of tomorrow.

1 comment:

drbethsnow said...

Yeah, there does seem to be a sentiment (mostly from people who don't use the Internet much), that it is a dark and scary place full of liars, rapists and child molesters waiting to prey on people who don't realize what a dark and scary place the Internet is.

I've been known to remind many a person that people lie, rape, molest and kill in the "nonline" world too - people are people and some of them are dangerous and some of them are not.