Saturday, October 02, 2004

You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful.

After our discussion of why it is that people find it so disturbing to see hate speech, pornography, and other forms of pollution on the Web, I happened to be talking to my daughter about The Catcher in the Rye, which she's reading for ninth-grade English. I recalled the famous passage where Holden sees an obscenity written on the wall of his little sister's school:
Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them -- all cockeyed, naturally -- what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it… I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked into the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall."

Shortly after, Holden goes into the Metropolitan Museum and wanders into the Egyptian tomb:
I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you'd never guess what I saw on the wall. Another "Fuck you."… That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose.

It struck me that the passage gets at the deepest reason why people are disturbed by seeing taboo references in public places -- it seems to violate the sacrosanctity of the place itself. In that sense, maybe Holden's explanation for why he's troubled by seeing the graffiti in Phoebe's school is a kind of rationalization after the fact : the shock on seeing the words precedes the reflections as to what his sister would make of them.

What I was trying to suggest in class is that the explanations of the dangers of online racism and porn may have the same character -- not that there aren't any genuine risks in having this stuff out there, but that the shock and indignation that people feel when they see these sites isn't motivated primarily, or at least immediately, by the concern that the accessibility of the sites will lead to an upsurge in racism or sex crimes. It's more like Holden's feeling that "You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful." I'm not sure if this is stretching things, but at any rate, it's that sense of discourse as a "place" that I want to pick up on Wednesday,


Blogger Judd said...

Geoff, I agree with you 100%. What I was (inarticulately) trying to describe in class is my belief that to a certain extent the preoccupation with pornography which creates the debate over such things as library filters is a uniquely American phenomenon - or at the very least that we can't really talk about it with out situating it socioculturally.

Americans seem to have a fascination with the illicit which creates a vicious cycle. This is essentially the point I think Michael Moore argued in his film Bowling for Columbine with regards to violence. Americans are not necessarily more violent than people in any other country, but we are more preoccupied with advertising it, discussing it, and categorizing it as dangerous, ellicit, and upsetting. Similarly, my point isn't that people in Europe, for instance, look at less porn, or that they are less concerned with the degradation of women (let's leave aside the distinction between pornography and erotic matieral), simply that they are less preoccupied with proclaiming their horror. In Europe, I suppose, 'nice and peaceful' places and pornography or 'pollution' are not so mutually exclusive.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

Do you think a modern Holden would have had the same reaction? I think probably not. Just because one worthless dimwit writes something tasteless on a wall... does that mean the place is less what it was without it? Not really. What fascinates me is the circumstances that all contribute to someone feeling that they have to write "fuck you" on any wall. In a school, I can imagine the one dirty kid writing it... but in an egyptian tomb at a museum? (Unless it was the egyptians themselves! They might have had the foresight to imagine the robbing of their graves for "science.")

1:24 PM  
Blogger yardi said...

I agree with Judd's comment. I have a good friend who's father used to show him and his older brother Playboy as of age 7 or so. He would give it to them and encourage them to look at it. They are now both great guys and treat their wives wonderfully.
Of course, a theory can't be based on one example, but I wonder how our society would turn out if parents showed their kids playboy (or playgirl) and encouraged them to appreciate and respect the human body rather than to hide it under the mattress.

On second thought, this sounds like a nice theory, but the parallel of it on the web would be for google and cnn and any major site to start linking to and encouraging people to look at it to do away with their "fascination with the illicit."


5:39 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Traupman said...

I agree that the sense of place is a big factor in the online pornography/hate speech debate. But, I don't think people react so strongly to pollution on the web because it dirties their public space like vulgar graffiti on a bathroom wall.

To make a sweeping generalization, Americans don't give a damn about public spaces. Look at how dirty, unappealling and forgotten our city centers are. The trend over the past 30 years has been towards increasing privatization with no signs of stopping. The Bush administration is advocating the "Ownership Society", using the logic that only what is privately owned is valued. The Tragedy of the Commons seems to be in its final act in 21st century America.

Getting back on topic, I don't think people react to web pollution because it is a stain on their public space. If it was, I don't think most people would care. I think they get upset because it is an intrusion into their private domains. While we all know the internet is a global shared information space, I don't think most people subconsciously perceive it as such. We come to think of the internet as something that's in our computers; something that exists in a nebulous form inside our bedrooms and offices.

Pornography and racist speech on the internet thus finds a way to seep into our personal places, which is what gets people upset. Most of us could ignore vulgar graffiti on the walls of a train station bathroom, but who wouldn't be upset to find a "fuck you..." written on the wall of his or her living room?

As such, I think people's reactions to pornography and racism on line have more than a little connection to their reactions to spam, telemarketing, etc. We're reasonably accepting of such nuisances in public -- very few people get annoyed by billboards and other public ads -- but almost no one likes ads that intrude into our private space. I think the same thing holds true with pornographic and racist sites. If they could be reliably banished to unseen places -- the digital equivalent of the seedy bookstore -- I don't think most people would care. But there's no real way to do that since, despite our perceptions, the internet is a very public place and there are incentives for those site's creators to publicize their content far and wide. So, the only solution to this problem may be the gradual changing of peoples perceptions and expectations.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Scott Carter said...

There are several different ways the concepts of place and space may apply to digital media. In the above example, Holden was disgusted with the physical intrusion of a marking on an otherwise sacrosanct physical place. On one hand, because the Internet (defaulting to AP style) ultimately has a physical manifestation (e.g., the screen) it can
encourage similar repulsive intrusions into public spaces (e.g., a computer screen displaying a browser set to a pornographic site in a children's library). On the other hand, the notion of place may also refer only to online information (e.g., the children's library homepage and related links). But all of the metaphors that accompany the notions of place and space are difficult to define when applied to digital media and, I think, may ultimately be inappropriate. For example, how might one define "nearness" in Internet space? Because of the hypertextual nature of the Internet, it is tempting to define nearness as order-of-separation. But in the physical world, nearness implies fast access, and that may be accomplished in the online world by an inaccurate search or even simple misspelling. Some early online community systems (such as Alpha world) made the mistake of directly translating the metaphors of physical place to online fora. The result was an ugly 3D world that imposed unnecessary "physical" restrictions on the online community (you had to walk an avatar to get to different fora) and the community quickly sputtered.

Is a children's site on the Internet spoiled because of the "nearness" of a pornographic one? Is it too easy to take a "wrong turn"? Or perhaps place is by definition phenomenal, the context of the consumption of digital media is fundamental, and the Internet needs new metaphors.

Also, other classes at Berkeley have investigated the notion
of online places, including IS296, Fall 01 and Anthro 230, Fall 04.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Paul Duguid said...

BBC News has a story this morning that reflects the challenge of keeping porn in its place. In essence, a school search on Ask Jeeves (UK) triggered a search term (heart, remarkably) that is on Ask Jeeves's list of suspect searches. So the search engine responded with a warning list of all the horrible things that this search might lead to on the site of a porn star "Tera Heart".

That a filter designed to keep things in their place and raise boundaries between the good and the bad paradoxically leads into what might be called suspect Terain recalls problems the Catholic Church used to have with its index of prohibited books (Index Librorum Prohibitarum). Inevitably, this became the place where people went when they wanted an authentically illicit book. The Catholic Church conveniently provided a high-quality guide. In the end, the Index itself had to be put on the Index--a curiously recursive action.

9:30 AM  

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