If charity begins at home, then often it ends there too -- at least if you're on your laptop. I'm not pretending to be holier than anyone. I would not want to get into a competition about how much or how little I've done for humanity. But I do know a big part of the Internet is about the appearance of being good. We like pictures of bravery. We hashtag RIPs. We disseminate information on charities more than we donate. And the notion of volunteering starts to become almost surreal.
"This is cool, but could we Skype it out?"
Again, the Internet didn't create this condition. There are selfless, saintly heroes. I have seen them. They exist, but the rest of us are just people. People who need a fair amount of shame and disgust to be motivated. People who need to be shocked into action. And people who are lazy. When you add a device that allows people to feel good about themselves with minimum effort, you give them an incentive not to do more. And the Internet is sensational at that.
Ooh, look at me. I shared a link about substance abuse the day Amy Winehouse died! Check me out sponsoring this walkathon for five bucks! Awww, #RIP Jack Klugman!
And while some nonprofits are attempting to increase profits by using social media to reach out to a younger audience willing to give, there also has been an observed psychological phenomenon commonly called "slacktivism" -- a kind of Internet-fostered act of non-giving.
A study from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business found that the more public the primary show of social-media endorsement, the less likely people were to provide meaningful support later. Conversely, if they supported a cause in a more confidential way, they were more likely to give money later. Essentially, the appearance of charity becomes its own reward, instead of a desire to make a difference or cause a personal effect in the world.
The Internet loves the idea of revolution. Y'know, Anonymous, V for Vendetta, Wikileaks, and all that. But in many ways, the Internet actually helps perpetuate the status quo. Let me explain. I don't think it's too controversial a statement to say that, for the most part, the world has been controlled by the very rich. Whether it's kings, robber baron industrialists, or the richest 85 people on Earth (who have as much wealth as 3.5 billion of the world's poorest people), extreme wealth means power, and that power is limited to a decreasing few.
How is that sustainable? Well, actually there are lots of reasons. For one, humanity doesn't have a great history of applying the principles of socialism too kindly either, so most Americans aren't exactly lining up for that. And then there's the stumbling Occupy movement, who seem more concerned with protesting financiers than politicians. What's the point of that? A capitalist has one job: to make as much money as possible. You're not going to change a capitalist, and you shouldn't try. You just ask government to protect you from the unbridled abuses of capitalism. That's why we have child labor laws, the minimum wage, and work safety requirements. As I've written before, deriding capitalists for greed is like picketing wild animals for eating meat. When the lions break free, it makes a lot more sense to scream at the zoos who have the responsibility for maintaining cages. You can try to yell at the lions if you really want to, but if they listen at all, it's just because they're taking a second to decide which part of your body to devour first.
Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty
"Oh, I see. You're saying some of our lending policies are not ethical. Interesting. Say, could you do me a favor and roll around in some crushed black pepper? Oh, no reason."
But there's another reason the ruling class continues to rule: It's because for most of history -- until things reach a breaking point -- we're comfortable enough to avoid revolution. There are a handful of things that maintain that balance. Things that let honest men and women, working harder for less, get up in the morning and go to their shitty jobs without driving to the nice part of town and eating the rich instead. And at this point, with the divide between rich and poor at increasingly large levels, I fully believe there are three things keeping society from tearing itself apart: religion, organized sports, and the Internet.
I don't want to spend too long on the first two, because it's nothing you haven't heard before and you don't need to take a hostile view of either sports or religion to see its ability to provide solace to the masses. Like sports, the Internet can be a huge distraction, helping you ignore the 50 hours a week you spend in a cubicle for increasingly awful health insurance and diminishing prospects of sending your children to college.
Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Crippling, reality-based depression? There's an app for that.
And like organized religion, the Net definitely facilitates certain people's love of building self-esteem by condemning others, but the Internet also has its own special populace-calming powers. First, in a persistently terrible economy, the Internet helps us steal. That's important, because (and I'm sorry for being technical) most of us are broke, but we still like stuff. Torrents and illegal downloads and streams really do ease people's suffering. Does that make theft OK? Not really, but this isn't about judgment. It's about reality.
But there's a bigger point. As long as you've got enough money for some Wi-Fi, you can enjoy the Internet in the same way as the power elite. In a weird way, the Net makes you feel rich. You know Bill Gates has seen LOLcats. Without question, Warren Buffet has bookmarked Two Girls One Cup. And, I feel it's a safe bet that a twat like Shia Labeouf still enjoys a good Rick Roll. The Internet is a common denominator. Something that unites the very rich and the very poor. Rich people have better food, they have sex with hotter people, they drive nicer cars, they have fancier homes, they get better health care, they have every advantage you can think of, but they don't get better Internet programming. Right now, someone who can buy and sell me a million times over and someone who's stealing their neighbor's Wi-Fi are both reading this.
That makes us feel good, or at least content. Content enough, let's say. We're not serfs after all. We have comforts just like the ruling class. So, for all its power, for all its possibility, the Net succeeds most in promoting apathy. In fostering stagnation. That's not the Internet's fault. It's ours. But its power is still waiting to be tapped. And it seems to me that Charlie Chaplin's speech from The Great Dictator about Fascism and the promise of technology is somehow even more true today than it was more than 70 years ago when he first made it:
"The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men -- cries out for universal brotherhood -- for the unity of us all.
"Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness."
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