Of bauds and E-mail


GOOD MANNERS are breaking down on the Internet. Rudeness, even savage insults are coming via electronic mail. Assorted species of porn flourishing. The good fellowship of the nerds poisoned, souring into the bad fellowship of the electronic jungle.

It makes me glad I resisted when everybody was saying it was the future and the train was leaving the station, or the rocket was leaving the pad, or the bauds were leaving the modem, or whatever, and not being on it would leave you stranded.

I laughed. I was too used to being stranded. I had been stranded ever since the Queen Mary, the Michelangelo, the France and the S.S. United States all left the dock and never came back.

I had survived for years in a world where you could no longer go anyplace without being sealed in a tin can, strapped into a seat designed to make you beg for mercy and hurtled through time with all the dignity of a crate of deviled ham being shipped by Federal Express.

Let the train leave the station without me. Let the bauds do their worst. That was my attitude.

Oh, don't think it was an irrational decision, a whimsical surrender to quixotic impulse, a sentimental expression of yearning for the buggy and village blacksmith. Not at all.

It was based on my studies of how technology works on us all. These studies made it obvious that the Internet simply had to produce a breakdown in good manners, the very collapse in civility which is now occurring.

First, the nature of technology:

Technology is a great blessing, and what do we know about blessings? That every blessing has its trade-off or curse. The greater the blessing, the nastier the curse. For instance, the curse we accept for the blessing of the automobile is an annual casualty list of dead and maimed that exceeds the average annual casualty rate of the Vietnam War.

Another curse is technology's tendency to separate people from the consequences of their worst behavior. Where once we had to kill enemies with cleavers, swords and clubs, technology now lets us do it from high in the sky. Even from a switchboard on a faraway continent.

When insulated from the mayhem, how much easier it is to be insouciant about killing thousands than when you are required to wade about in their gore.

Advances in communications technology show the same principle at work: Technology makes savagery easier by keeping people from having to cope face-to-face with the consequences of their rotten behavior. The obscene telephone caller and the telemarketing industry are just two of many trade-offs we accept for the blessing of 911.

Recent developments in the once-civilized talk-radio field dramatize how technology brutalizes public discourse. In backward centuries when slandering people often involved meeting one's victims in the flesh, there were restraints on the viperish tongue.

Technology ended that. Now famous professional slanderers sit in remote studios and encourage amateurs to phone from the far side of Nowhere, and the abuse flows casually with no risk at all of being punched in the nose, receiving a sword in the liver or being challenged to pistols at dawn. Here is technology helping cowardice rise to new heights in public esteem.

The Internet was clearly destined to deepen the isolation of Technological Man from the unhappy consequences of using this blessed electronic system. Isolation was inherent. A human alone with his machine talking to machines activated by other humans alone. Easy to hide in that maze. Be as bestial as instinct wishes and so what? Hard to catch you, punch your nose, put a stiletto into your kidney.

Rudeness was made easier by the blessing. Rudeness without style, elegance, wit. Telegraphic brevity was cherished. No capital letters. An invitation, right there, for the undiscriminating mind to do its worst.

None of that antiquated parchmenthead lingo, either, about "Dear Mister This" and "Dear Madam That." The train was leaving the station, the rocket leaving the pad. What bliss to be alive in that dawn when the bauds were leaving the modem.

If only the Michelangelo were leaving the dock. Six days to Naples. Ravioli melting in the mouth. Oh, the shame of being an antiquated ocean linerhead.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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