‘Disconnected’ by Carrie James

I’ve just finished reading ‘Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap’ by Carrie James. James has taken a ‘glass half empty’ approach to how the internet is reconfugiring ethics in this crazy, mixed up world.

I have to say, the book is largely empirical – James directly describes the ethical dilemmas and work around that their research subjects – preteens to young adults – are generally employing from 2008-2012. James writes clearly and confidently and the real strength of the work is in its observation of how ethics is negotiatied (or not) online.

A few things struck me while reading it. Firstly, there is some really putrid behaviour online, and the nature of the internet seems to actually be eliciting putrid behaviour offline. Two cases that struck me were the Stuebenville rape case and the rise of ‘creepshot’ sites/pages/subredits. In each case the possibility of sharing degrading images seems to have actually provided the incentive for committing acts of assault and molestation. I won’t go into detail here but what I found weirdest about this was that the tech (anonymous, or psudo-private sharing) seems to be opening up ‘new’ ways of victimising people.  I guess that sounds like a ‘duh!’ statement, considering the breadth of information about cyberbullying that is out there. However, I’d previously considered these instances to be simply ‘amplified’ versions of offline behaviours. Here we’re seeing the development of specific bullying to suit the media d’jour.

James explains how this has become possible – there is a growing gap between how we understand ethics in our ‘real life’ and how this is understood online. Teenagers (and others) tend to regard online ethics and morality only in terms of personal consequences; a problem exacerbated by education programs and parents that are focused on protecting ‘the children’. This doesn’t encourage thinking of others and there is a tendency for the internet to appear as a distinctly different space to real life. Given that it is a pretty vile place for most people – they develop a view that it is completely ‘virtual’ (in the traditional, not Deleuzean sense) and thus don’t necessarily approach it as moral agents.  James finishes up the book by naming a few things that can be done to force a reconsideration of online actions as an extension of real communities and relationships (and also constituted by real ‘others’ who deserve respect).

This brings me to what I see as the key oversight of the book – that it brackets and disregards a lot of the broader normative arguments that surround this research program. For instance to what extent are horrid ethical (and moral) choices a sign of the broader social and cultural times and not something directly related to technology use? At a few points James raises this question, or at least points out that this is a possibility which she is not focussing on. But for me, she could have well reflected on this more meaningfully. She clearly states that it is difficult to know how much of the ‘self interest/self concern’ attitude that dominated her research group was a consequence of technology and how much was a pure reflection of the parents pre-existing attitudes. Because she does state that this attitude of self interest was the defining feature of parents approach and educational explanation of ethics. So, the book left me wondering how much we can blame technology for declining ethical standards, when the same decline in care for others has been evident in the voting patterns and social attitudes of the last few generations.

and finally, a note on realisability:

James’ solutions all involve getting the online ethical world to relate more directly to the offline world. Here she is challenging the fundamental problem of ‘disconnect’ as described in the book’s title. In an engaging passage in the last chapter she describes a ‘conscious connectivity’ and ‘roles and responsibilities’ thinking which can help people think through the real world implications for their online behaviour.  The roles and responsibilities angle (that you should consider the ramifications of your online actions in light of all facets of your character) was particularly provocative for me, as it seems to imply a semi-repressive disciplinary subjectivity which would be the opposite of other-regarding or connective ethics. Surely, one of the things that makes the internet interesting is that you can escape your ‘roles and responsibilities’ and experiment with different subject positions? It seems to me that doing so (experiencing something like being someone else) is actually one of the best opportunities to broaden your ethical perspective.

In the face of this, I’d like to advance the concept of ‘realisability’. Its actually an idea developed by Elliot Delys in his 2010 Honours research which he did with me. ‘Realisability’ is an added dimension to digital ethics which describes the possible implications of an online action. Simply put an online action which has direct and clear offline effects has a high degree of realisability whereas an online action which has no clear effect on an other has a low degree of realisability. With this concept as a moderator upon ethcial judgement, it possible to judge the actual moral and ethical implications of online behaviour without completely restricting the experimentations that online space offers.

So, for instance, posting hate speech on a marginalised group’s facebook page has a high degree of realisability – the hatred is subjectively experienced by a large number of people who each internalise the message with specific ramifications. Compare that to trying to inhabit a different subjectivity in an online chatroom where the only possible ‘realisable’ effect is the discovery of your disengenousness… well while the latter may be unethical, it could be considered only so if the effects are realisable.

And for those of you having trouble with the notion that there are always implications for online actions, you can think of ‘realisability’ to think through those implications (and the other assumptions you’re making about our relationship to the virtual). To what extent is any online action realisable and why?