It seems as if, on the internet, harm can be done to others immediately, continuously, thoughtlessly, and unceasingly, and worse, without consequence to the perpetrator, who enjoys only satisfaction, righteousness, and immunity. It seems that a willingness to participate in conversations online is an implicit agreement to be subjected to harassment and abuse. Countless people–let me just say, most people I know with active online lives–have suffered this. People have committed suicide because of this abuse, old and young, but especially the young; countless people have withdrawn from both the online and offline world after having been subjected to online bullying; the victims, most often coming from the most vulnerable, protected groups, continue to suffer and retreat further from the full embrace of the world and its possibilities.
Those who suffer from racism, sexism, harassment and a daily parade of micro-aggressions have no recourse under any company’s Terms of Service, not to mention the law, unless an actual assault has taken place–and as is well documented, few of those cases are prosecuted, and of those, a vanishingly small number result in conviction. The punishments mostly accrue to the victim reporting the crime.
Online, in the various communities I’ve participated in, built and managed, I’ve written a half dozen Community Guidelines, and spent countless hours thinking through this problem. I’ve kicked countless perps off a dozen web sites, banned, muted and used secret troll-thwarting ninja techniques to perma-ban awful people using robust, well designed admin interfaces. I’ve even reported bad actors to the FBI. I couldn’t think of how, under the law, the people who suffer from these agonies could be protected from, or receive redress from the thugs whose wrongs they had endured. But today I happened upon an article about sexual harassment and Roman law, which presented a vision of the law that I hadn’t thought possible: Here’s what it said.
The law expanded over the centuries to protect an increasingly wide range of personal rights by means of an action known as the actio injuriarum (or action for injuries). By the time of the publication of the Digest of Justinian in 533AD, the action protected three groups of rights:corpus (bodily integrity), fama (reputation), and dignitas (dignity).
This is where the major difference lies between our English-based law of torts and Roman law: although the law of torts allows a plaintiff to sue for bodily injury and defamation, it offers no protection for dignity and therefore no right to sue for verbal insult, no matter how offensive.
The actio injuriarum lives on in modern legal systems. A good example is South Africa, whose legal system is based on Roman law. There, the action has been used to recover damages for sexist verbal insults, unwelcome propositioning for sexual intercourse, and unwelcome exposure to pornography. The action also protects privacy, so it has been used to recover damages in cases involving peeping Toms, stalking, and the publication of intimate facts about people’s private lives.
From a review by Michael N. McGregor in Tin House of The Everglades: River of Grass, a book by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whose name is probably familiar to you now, because of the massacre of students at the school which bore her name. I was struck by this passage, which McGregor quoted, of the men who came to drain the Everglades:
Before that, in all those years of talk and excitement about drainage, the only argument was a schoolboy’s logic. The draining of the Everglades would be a Great Thing. Americans did Great Things. Therefore Americans would drain the Everglades. Beyond that–to the intricate and subtle relation of soil, of fresh water and evaporation, and of runoff and salt intrusion, and all the consequences of disturbing the fine balance nature had set up in the past four thousand years–no one knew enough to look. They saw the Everglades no longer as a vast expanse of saw grass and water, but as a dream a mirage or riches that man men would follow to their ruin.
To do Great Things. It has a powerful, irresistible appeal, but is almost always interpreted wrongly, and used to justify waste and destruction. In its name the Everglades were sold to conquistadors who made fortunes selling the plumes of ibises to society ladies for their hats, and hides of alligators for their shoes; the wildlife died off, the fires came, and the salt intrusion of the oceans.
Through Stewart Brand’s work, beginning with How Buildings Learn (one of my favorite books) and his work with the Long Now Foundation, I learned to look at time differently, and technology differently, and to think about how time is cooked into everything we do today, especially as regards the ephemeral nature of all the time spent on computers and in online media.
I often refer to this diagram from Brand’s book, The Clock of the Long Now when talking about how we think about time and our world:
“Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers all at one time held the promise of a more environmentally healthy world not dependent on paper and deforestation. The result of our ubiquitous digital lives is, as we see in The Anthrobscene, actually quite the opposite: not ecological health but an environmental wasteland, where media never die. Jussi Parikka critiques corporate and human desires as a geophysical force, analyzing the material side of the earth as essential for the existence of media and introducing the notion of an alternative deep time in which media live on in the layer of toxic waste we will leave behind as our geological legacy.”
— child labor and human trafficking is behind much of the labor providing the ores and minerals used in the making of our machines. The geology behind what we do is usually invisible to us, as so much is. It is important to be reminded. Time and responsibility, indeed.
- Journalism should stop “feeding the trolls”, as we’d say here in Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump and his flying monkeys are clearly trolls. A great strategy for this has been presented by Jay Rosen on Pressthink of how the press can execute it: report from outside the white house; don’t broadcast live events in order to protect your audience from lies; don’t amplify or repeat lies. Send interns, not top reporters, into press conferences.
- I’ve been rereading The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger. Technology’s essence is not technological: it is a way of looking at the world as if everything is “standing reserve”.Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. A tree is not a tree, it is subordinate to the orderability of cellulose; Humanity is reduced to what is calculable, manipulable, employable. Nature most of all. Viz:
The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.
Heidegger’s Black Notebooks were also translated into English a couple years ago, and I will probably never read them, as I’ve left off reading much Heidegger in the past couple decades. Have you read them? Here’s a primer in The New Yorker: Why does it matter if Heidegger was Anti-Semitic? Heidegger was a Nazi. This is especially relevant in the context of technology and the human, for obvious reasons.
- I was shocked to learn how few books in translation Americans read. If you want to find some good reads, a good place to start is the long list from the National Translation Awards. I’ve got my eye on August, and already have a copy of Dandelions.
Playa Giones in Nosara, Costa Rica, was where I spent the last week, and was where I saw so many beautiful plants and animals and trees. Howler monkeys, small but sounding like King Kong, iguanas with frilled collars, green birds with dangling tail feathers, strangler figs strangling their host plants, and Halloween Moon Crabs, my new favorite crustacean. I also read a ton of books, as I always do at the beach. I had brought my Kindle so I didn’t need to haul this ton of books back and forth in my suitcase, but there was a very good bookstore at the Harmony Hotel, so I ended up bringing a lot back. Didn’t think I’d be book shopping in Nosara! I decided to read the books that were on my Kindle which had been sitting unread for a long time, and so:
- Persuasion by Jane Austen needs no introduction. Her novels seem like straightforward marriage plots, but her snarky wickedness, her summary take-downs of the vain and pretentious, and her warm sympathy for women of independent mind are always a sustaining pleasure.
- Moonglow was another competent book by Michael Chabon, one of those books existing on the border between fact and fiction. This one is about his grandfather’s life as a soldier, his grandmother’s life as a survivor and their lives together after the Second World War had shaped them. And there is a mystery: the lost history of his grandmother’s childhood.
- Next on my Kindle’s unread list was Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. Coincidentally it is also about a lost WWIIhistory, that of a boy who at four had been rescued from the Nazis and sent via Kindertransport to Wales. Reading Austerlitz and Moonglow consecutively really helps you see the difference between a journeyman and a master; though their strategies were quite different, their subjects and themes were similar, but the depth of understanding…
- One thing that is consistently reassuring about books in our world of perpetual commerce is that they’re never trying to sell you anything beyond the book itself. Which is part of the reason I only use my Kindle when I’m traveling. Because at the end of a book, say, Austerlitz, you’re immediately presented with many more books liked by the people who liked the book you just read. Among these I found Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, which I found quite gratifying. It starts out as a fairly standard “relationship” novel, cataloguing scenes between an ingenue writer and a much older tremendously famous and accomplished writer, roman a clef style–Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth when she was in her 20s and he in his 60s. But it then suddenly turns into Part Two, an Iraqi man being detained and interrogated at immigration services in Heathrow. A coda ties it all together. But it’s a book unlike other books. I am looking forward to future books by Lisa Halliday.
- Now, back home I am reading an interview with Richard Powers in the LARB, talking about his new book The Overstory, about the lives of trees. We are “plant blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.”
The people came to Samuel and said, “Put a king over us, to guide us.”
Samuel said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
1 Samuel 8