пятница, 27 июня 2008 г.

An Irishman's Diary

When Marshall McLuhan predicted the rise of a "global village", wireless microphones and the electric typewriter were the cutting edge of communications technology. Silicone chips had just been invented. The touch-tone telephone was on the way. But the world-wide web was still decades over the horizon, and the mobile camera-phone was science fiction.

So when McLuhan warned that electronic media would forge humanity into a collective identity with a "tribal base", it was mainly television he had in mind.

Genius as he was, he can hardly have foreseen the rise of "internet vigilantism", in which wrongdoers and social deviants would be censured or "blogslapped" online. Yet this form of community policing has helped make his global village a reality. And in enforcing rules of behaviour, it can be as effective as the actual village used to be.

There was a time when most people lived, if not in villages, in small societies, where an important controlling mechanism was fear of what the neighbours thought. A sense of shame kept you in line and prevented you from committing crimes, such as losing the run of yourself. Then more and more of us moved to cities, where we didn't even know who the neighbours were, never mind what they were thinking.

The anonymity of urban living set us free. But before we knew what we had, along came the internet, blogging, and the picture phone. And now we're back in the village. It's a much bigger village these days: the neighbourhood watch scheme spans the planet and the parish pump has been replaced by the internet. But if you commit a transgression, your shame is just as liable to be village news.

The shape of things to come appeared on the floor of a Korean subway carriage in mid-2005. It was left there by a dog, whose owner - a young woman - declined to clean the mess up. When handed a tissue, she used it to wipe the dog rather than the floor, at which point relations between her and the other passengers degenerated.

Naturally someone took her picture and later posted it on a website. Others added details of her identity and past. The case of "Dog Poop Girl" (to use the coy American translation of her Korean nickname) soon attracted national headlines and sparked debates about online persecution. But the naming and shaming had worked. According to the Washington Post: "Humiliated in public. . .the woman reportedly quit her university."

Korea's pioneering contribution aside, the US leads the way in policing the village. There are websites there devoted to exposing everything from bad parking (caughtya.org) to irresponsible childcare (isawyournanny.blogspot.com). Last month, I developed a grim fascination with a site devoted to America's ugliest Christmas light displays, if only to see what we could expect in Irish front gardens next year (answer: lights and music, synchronised!).

No transgression escapes sanction from the web's pulpit. The Wall Street Journal recently reported the case of a Californian whose home-delivered newspaper disappeared from his porch several nights running. He stayed up late one night and, when the paper arrived, attached a note to it saying "I'm watching you". Then he waited, hidden, cameraphone at the ready.

When the thief proved to be his next-door neighbour (who read the note and walked away), you'd think the watcher might have put down his phone and had words, man to man. But no: that's so old-village. He did the new-village thing, by secretly filming the culprit and posting the evidence on Youtube, where by yesterday it had attracted 1,715 viewers.

In the old village, provided you weren't suspected of being a witch or something, the worst you often had to fear was being talked about behind your back. In the new one, thanks to sites such as ratemyteacher, not only can you be talked about behind your back - and among a much larger group of people - you're also allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Collectively, the people of the new village know more about you than the people of the old village ever did. The WSJ also reported the case of a New York SUV driver who deliberately hit a bicycle blocking his path. A pro-cycling blogger posted the registration number and, within minutes, other contributors had added his name, address, licence details, occupation and job title.

As a thoughtful extra, somebody even supplied an aerial picture of the man's house (courtesy of the village library, Google Earth). No doubt this was to facilitate any bicycle militants who planned to retaliate with fighter planes.

The thing is, over-the-top as these tactics may be, you can understand the temptation. Even well-adjusted people like you and me seethe inwardly at the man occupying two spaces in the multi-storey car-park or the woman yapping into her phone in the restaurant and saying "Oh my God!" about everything. It would be so nice to exact some sort of revenge, if only we weren't so mature.

Marshall McLuhan himself lampooned the desire when, late in life but still before the internet, he played a cameo role in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall. In the scene, Allen's character, Alvy Singer, is oppressed by a college lecturer next to him in the cinema queue, who is trying to impress his girlfriend with a misinterpretation of McLuhan's work.

A modern-day Singer would furtively have filmed his neighbour's dissertation and posted it on pretentiousdrivelinmoviequeues.com. But this wasn't possible in 1977. So instead, he just told the guy he was wrong and, miraculously, produced the real-life McLuhan to clinch his argument.

Whereupon Allen stepped out of character to sigh at the camera: "Oh, if life were only like this."

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