The Speed of Technology

SXSW 2000 Interactive Festival

Blaming the Messenger

Mod: Heather Gold (Subvert.com)

Panelists: Clive Thompson (Shift), Matt Heimer (SmartMoney), Cliff Blanchard (Austin Police Department)

Leave it to the press to look for easy answers. When the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., catapulted geek culture into mainstream American consciousness, traditional print and electronic media started scrambling for explanations, settling ultimately on what the New York Post called "the creepy world of the nerds at Columbine" -- violent video games, online chat rooms, and plain old youth alienation -- as its scapegoat. Three months later, when day trader Mark Barton blew away his family, several co-workers, and himself after losing nearly half a million dollars in risky online trading, the association between the Internet and impulsive violence was sealed.

It isn't, as two of the four experts on Monday's "Killing the Messenger" panel pointed out, as if blaming America's problems on boys and their toys is something new; that trend goes back at least as far as Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy game that early-Eighties-era adults claimed would "destroy our ability to see the distinction between fantasy and reality," according to APD Detective Cliff Blanchard, who now investigates crimes online. What's different this time, according to Clive Thompson, editor and video game columnist for digi-cult magazine Shift, is that the people blaming new media for society's ills often have "legitimate concerns" about technology that aren't being addressed by the online world. "There's a huge number of people who aren't enjoying [the new economy] at all ... and we need to understand where that anxiety is coming from," Thompson said.

One place it comes from, suggested panel moderator Heather Gold, an Internet consultant and the creator of subvert.com, is the perceived need to be on top -- the sense, Gold said, that "if you can't be the best, why bother?"

"The big perception is that if you're not successful on the highest possible level and making the maximum conceivable amount of money, you're not a player," added panelist Matt Heimer, a SmartMoney magazine staffer who has written extensively about the day trading culture. Both the Columbine killers and Barton "had a sense that they had been relegated to second place, and only first place matters ... That's far deeper than the Internet."

Neither day traders nor high-school students are typified by their murderous representatives; but drastic actions, in many ways, are a direct response to the lack of security fostered by both cultures. "Our culture overemphasizes the gambling side of [online trading] and underemphasizes the total lack of security," Heimer said, pointing out that of the approximately 70 million people trading stock online, 80% lose money.

The solution, the panelists agreed, was twofold: First, society will have to stop "blaming the messenger" -- that is, the Internet -- by saying, in Blanchard's words, that if killers "didn't have access to the Internet, this never would have happened." (Ironically, the day after the panel, George W. Bush issued a statement blaming "dark dungeons of evil on the Internet" for the recent rash of school shootings.) Second, those in the new media will have to reach out to those who have been left behind by the new economy and try to understand their concerns. "We tend to be contemptuous of [critics] and say, 'What a bunch of rednecks,'" Thompson said. "The public needs a legitimate outlet for those concerns."

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