While walking down a busy downtown sidewalk one day, I happened to be walking behind someone who had just dropped a $20 bill from his pocket. Almost immediately, the virtual "angel and devil" appeared on my shoulders, complete with white smoke and all. "Do I pick up the cash and keep it, or do I hand it over to him?" I thought to myself, peering across opposing sides of my head for some divine answer. I did pick up the money, tapped the guy on the shoulder, and gave him his twenty, the entire time thinking about what I could have done with all that moolah. In many ways, the internet has become the equivalent of the angel-and-devil, allowing us to make moral decisions each and every day. The bigger underlying question though, is whether the 'net's existence is an opportunity to make good, or a mistake waiting to happen.
There is a common catch phrase that people use every day - "I wish I could..." It's a declaration of intent, an impending promise to go forth and do something, whether it be good or bad. Sometimes it's used for the good of self or of others. "I wish I could donate to that charity" or "I wish I could drive you to the airport." But it's also used for not-so-good intentions. "I wish I could steal a million dollars," or how about "I wish I could avoid paying my taxes." The concept of how we decide to do good or bad things comes about in part from our own upbringing, but this only gets us so far in life. Eventually, we have to make a firm decision to take the high road and do what's "right", or to pull the trigger (no pun intended) and do what's not.
With all of these moral and ethical questions that we're confronted with, we find that the internet adds yet another layer of complexity to the decision. After all, the internet was designed in part as a way to "enable" things: enable communication, enable sharing of information and ideas, and enable global business and learning. The internet was intended to make more things possible.
But we find that the internet also enables bad things too: immoral things like pornography and cyber-bullying, unethical things like theft and extortion. The internet can be a virtual "red light district" for an individual as easily as it is a way of finding one's direction towards becoming a saint. A person can spend $50 on membership to a pornographic website as easily as he can spend the same $50 donating to The American Cancer Society.
But why does the internet offer a "catch" that personal morality seems to overlook?
My sense is that with today's "want it now want it fast" mentality, the internet enables people to bypass the internal "self-speak" that we normally employ to talk ourselves out of doing bad things. After all, it takes me at least three minutes to self-talk myself out of buying a cool new MP3 player, where it only takes me three seconds to locate and click on a "buy" button on a website. In this same way, the "want it now" mentality allows us to dismiss any badness that may come with our flash decision, replacing that thought with emotions of excitement, intrigue, and quick satisfaction. And like a double latte, the emotional caffeine eventually wears out, causing us to crash and burn in the mess that we're left to deal with.
The 'net is a vast resource that opens doors and enables society to do things that either could not be done before or could not be done easily. But it is also a double edged sword that can easily tap into our deepest darkest demons, as much as it can awaken our inner angels. It enables online charity fund-raising as easily as it does online identity theft. Ultimately, we're faced with making choices -- ones that really aren't that difficult to make -- unless of course there's moral or ethical dilemma involved.
I'm left wondering... what DID that guy end up using that $20 bill for? My sense is that it ended up as either food or fetish.