Through the Internet, Darkly
For my birthday, a group of Conciliar Post writers banded together for a brilliant round table discussion on the imago dei. Okay, it was coincidentally on my birthday, not in celebration of it. The round table is a fantastic piece that I commend to your reading. In an unusual twist for the internet, the comments section is also full of edifying dialogue. You should go read all of it and come back. I’m not here to expand upon or argue with the excellent definitions and interpretations they’ve presented. Instead, I’d like to explore what it means to be an image-bearer of God who interacts with other image-bearers in the context of the internet, a medium that by its very nature veils our personhood and reduces others to data streams.
With the internet, we have a tool at our fingertips that can give us an unfathomable amount of information about the most mundane details of a person’s life, provided they bother to share it—and many do. This same tool can also filter out everything that makes a person human, rendering them only an object of fascination or, more commonly, ire. As an illustration, I’d like to share an anecdote that will certainly bring the intelligence quotient of our normally erudite community down a few points—we may blame Chris Smith’s recent piece for this inspiration. This is the story of a zombie video game called DayZ.
DayZ began as a minimalist modification to a military simulation game. Players are dumped into a vast online wilderness with a backpack, some canned beans, and a canteen of water—absolutely directionless. There are no goals, rules, or objectives. Scattered across a landscape that takes hours to traverse from one end to the other are farms, villages, and towns filled with food, water, and various survival supplies. Oh, and zombies. The entire game world is covered in zombies that will swarm players, if spotted, and then kill them. If killed, the player begins again where he started, alone with his beans and his thoughts. If you think this sounds like only a dark exercise in 21st century nihilism, I would only partially agree with you. DayZ is also an online multiplayer game, as such, it also powerfully demonstrates the shortcomings of the internet as a medium.
I am a living caricature of the male Millennial, so I very naturally played several hours of this zombie video game. I played towards the game’s beginning, when the player community was small, nascent, and puzzling over what exactly DayZ was. In a discussion on why video games are not art, Roger Ebert made the point that games are dependent on rules, whereas art is not.1 DayZ did not have rules—and nobody thought it was art—so the question remained: what is it? The consensus grew that the game was a survival simulator. This is how people would realistically behave in a catastrophic scenario. We would creep through farms, fields, and forests for hours on end, scavenging for food, medical supplies, and ammunition. If we ever saw anybody, we would immediately shoot them in the face, just in case they wanted to steal our beans.
This, of course, is nonsense. The game can’t simulate humanity under duress for the simple fact it cannot simulate humanity at all. I am a creature of flesh and spirit, though more often the former than the latter. I ache, thirst, and hunger.I find difficulty in articulating these feelings in the written word. How can unblinking, unsmiling digital avatars begin to convey such things? How can they possibly convey fear, shock, relief, or hope when stumbling across a stranger in the woods? The digital world gives us nothing but dolls. Online avatars are not icons through which we see another person, but strange puppets whom we suffer no guilt in attacking. The game has no ability to convey the other person’s being, their essence, their personhood. Such an environment no more simulates life than playing with plastic army men simulates being in the military.
While the example of an online video game sounds a bit extreme, and possibly irrelevant, we must realize that all of our online interactions are filtered through a similarly dehumanizing process. When we use Facebook, Twitter, reddit, email, news comments, etc., we are only putting a small token piece of our current thoughts out in the open. That token piece is only a fraction of a fraction of who we are. St. Francis said to God, “Whatever anyone is in your sight, that he is and nothing more.”2 God sees the entirety of us, including the parts we don’t understand or even realize are there. Although we accept that we are made in the image of God, we might not realize that God alone comprehends the fullness of our identity. He comprehends the fullness—and still loves us . I find difficulty in expressing myself face-to-face, when I have all my words and all my body language—a most important part of communication—at my disposal. How much more obscured am I online, where I have only a few typed words to offer on any given day? We cannot begin to project our personhood as God understands it, our imago dei, in the digital realm.
Now, I don’t think our inability to express our personhood, and to understand the personhood of others, online is necessarily a problem. It does become a problem when abuses arise, however. We’ve all read a bad comments section on the internet. It speaks volumes that we expect comments sections to be filled with vitriol and toxic remarks that we would never accept—or make—in face-to-face conversation. Snide comments about politicians or uncharitable implications about celebrities is far from the worst thing to happen on the internet, though. One notable case is the recent “Gamergate” controversy, in which female critics—such as Anita Sarkeesian—in the video game industry began receiving horrific threats of physical and sexual violence from multitudinous anonymous online sources. What did Sarkeesian do to attract such extreme hate? She made some intelligent Youtube videos about the role of female characters in video games—that’s all. If you’ve heard anything about feminism in your life, then her arguments are not surprising and largely uncontroversial. They might not be appealing arguments, but they’re not death-threat worthy.
What is it about the internet that turns what should be “I disagree with what you’ve said” into “I will kill you”? I’ve often heard that it’s the anonymous, consequence-free nature that encourages toxic behavior. I don’t find this argument sufficient. Why would mere anonymity cause me to attack someone with vile language? I must already have that inclination before typing a single word. I must have already decided that the target of my wrath is not a person made in the image of God, but a paper doll that is mine to rip to shreds. We all have anger flares. We all have moments where we want to say something unloving and uncharitable. We often don’t—or, if we do, we have the urge to repent and seek forgiveness. When we are face-to-face, we are more able to see one another as God sees us. Face-to-face the imago dei, the image of God that he gave us, isn’t just technical jargon—it’s reality. When we have presence in a room, we have presence in each other’s lives. This rarely, if ever, comes across online. The other person isn’t a person at all, just a story of text and images. I believe with most of the hurtful speech online, the speaker may not even comprehend they are addressing a real person. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are some genuine sociopaths out there, but as in real life, they are probably few and far between.
It’s easy to make our voices heard online. It’s more difficult to make our faces seen, and more difficult still to see the true faces of others. Unless we take the time to search for the person beneath the noise, the person that God made, the internet remains only crowd of voices without faces. Next time you’re browsing the web and someone offends you, driving you to take up the pen (well, keyboard), I urge you not to dwell on how you see the person. Instead, it would do well to consider how God sees them—and loves them still.
2. This particular rendering of the saying is attributed to St. Francis in the classic ascetic work, The Imitation of Christ. If there is a better source for this saying, I don’t know what it is!
Image courtesy Sukanto Debnath at Flickr Creative Commons under (CC BY 2.0).