BreakPoint Commentary #91022 - 10/22/1999

The Anonymous Self: Cyberspace Psychology

by Charles Colson

The classified ad read, "I am the man of your dreams. I love late night walks under star-filled skies." The ad ended by asking, "Are you the woman of my dreams? E-mail me soon, and let me touch your heart!"

Welcome to classified advertising in cyberspace. As with the notorious singles bars of the 1970s and 80s, you never know what you're really getting. In cyberspace, people are known only by their log-on names--and they often adapt various on-line personas: completely fabricated names and personalities.

In other words, what used to be called schizoid behavior is considered standard fare in cyberspace.

In fact, pretending to be someone else is part of the attraction. Nobody knows what you look like, whether you're a man or a woman, how old you are, or where you live. You can present yourself as a beautiful blond woman, a priest, an Olympic athlete, or a child--even if you're none of these things. On-line junkies can even pretend to be the opposite sex in so-called "chat rooms" where people converse via their keyboards--sometimes in sexually graphic terms.

MIT scientist Sherry Turkle describes this proliferation of identities in her book "Life on the Screen." Turkle argues that technology is rendering obsolete the belief in a single unified self. One's personality becomes whatever one chooses to make it. As Turkle puts it, cyberspace creates "a decentered self that exists in many worlds, that plays many roles at the same time."

The amazing thing is that many psychologists applaud these virtual multiple personalities. It used to be that psychologists helped people find their true selves. People spoke of "getting themselves together." But postmodernism has come to psychology, just as it has permeated the rest of our culture. It is the radical rejection of everything formerly considered to be stable and unchanging--truth, morality, even human nature.

Postmodernism teaches that all we are is a collection of the different roles we play in the changing phases of our life.

The new breed of postmodern psychologists defines the healthy personality as one that constantly reinvents itself. People who have a stable, consistent personality are not viewed as healthy, but repressed. Since truth is relative, it's considered neurotic to be tied down to enduring beliefs that give order and stability to your life.

What this means is that we may soon be facing a culture where Christians are labeled, by definition, "psychologically unhealthy."

We need to be ready to argue that real mental health starts with knowing who we are and where we stand in relation to ultimate truth--which is God himself. At the core of our being is a coherent self that God addresses, a self that God calls to respond to him.

Cyberspace may give opportunities to lose ourselves in a hall of mirrors--and some people think that's a good thing. But you may never know whether the person behind the on- line ad really is the man of your dreams, or whether he's a 13-year-old kid with acne--or even a woman.

It goes without saying that Christians ought not to fall for this stuff. Our task is just the opposite. Our task is to bring a message of wholeness to fragmenting souls.

BreakPoint Commentary #91021 - 10/21/1999

Cyber Smearing: Revenge on the Net

by Charles Colson

Not long ago, a Los Angeles woman became alarmed when strange men began hanging around her apartment, leering at her and making suggestive comments.

Finally, she discovered what they were looking for: They had been lured to her home by a series of pornographic Internet advertisements.

The awful truth was that the woman had not placed the ads. She was a victim of a twisted revenge scheme that only the Internet could make possible.

The ads purported to describe the woman's kinky sexual fantasies--and they gave out her name and address. The ads were posted by a man named Gary DellaPenta, whom the woman had met at church. She had refused to go out with him--but DellaPenta wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He was so persistent that the woman finally asked the elders of the church to eject him from the congregation, which they did. Those Internet ads were DellaPenta's twisted form of revenge.

Fortunately, DellaPenta was tracked down and prosecuted. But his actions were hardly unique. Christian Wolf, an attorney who specializes in Internet issues, notes that, increasingly, people are deciding to settle scores, real or imagined, by "spreading false or misleading information on the Internet." For instance, a 15-year-old named Alexander Lunney discovered that someone was sending threatening e-mails under his name to his neighbors.

There are two factors that virtually invite people to abuse the Internet this way: easy access and anonymity. As Wolf put it, "the Internet has made everyone a publisher." Anyone can post something on the Net--true or false, real, or outrageous.

In addition to easy access, the Internet provides anonymity. A now-famous New Yorker cartoon tells it all. The cartoon features one dog telling another dog that on the Internet "no one knows you're a dog." In other words, no one knows who you are.

This combination of access and anonymity can be volatile. It reduces our sense of accountability, and it can easily loosen moral and cultural restraints that normally rein in rude and vicious behavior. Just as people are more likely to be offensive while making an anonymous telephone call than when talking face-to-face, so people are more likely to make rude statements sitting alone before a computer screen.

Centuries ago, Augustine preached against the dangers of what he called "privatio," best translated as "privacy." Augustine knew that people acting in isolation and anonymity are more likely to give in to their worst impulses--a judgment vindicated by the stuff we see on line today.

The Internet is here to stay, but we can still avoid the pitfalls it presents. If we become aware of acts of cyber-smearing, we must act swiftly. These kinds of crimes can be prosecuted.

We all appreciate our privacy. But we must guard against what Augustine called "privatio"--the isolation and anonymity that breaks down people's normal inhibitions. We must take care to nurture those forms of social interaction that increase rather than decrease our sense of accountability to one another. The Internet is convenient but we cannot allow it to take the place of face-to-face contact.

Doing things off-line is one of the best ways to keep all of us in line.

Copyright (c) 1999 Prison Fellowship Ministries

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