More on Littleton:
Is the internet dangerous?

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

A reader writes: "What about the internet? If people aren't blaming parents for what happened in Littleton, they are blaming the internet. First it was television, now it's the media. It seems like my whole life the media have been blamed for everything wrong in America." -- Jack, Atlanta

You are so right, Jack, but the demonization of media isn't peculiar to America. At this writing, the Australian congress is about to enact a law that requires internet service providers to remove or block adult content on their world wide web servers. Australia may thus join China, Iran and Burma in the totally futile effort to censor the internet, which was precisely conceived as a communications web that couldn't be controlled.

It's all a grim reprise. When I was a teenager, I listened to my father curse the "liberal media" day after day. At school, some teachers still insisted that rock and roll was Satan's soundtrack. My mother tried for a time to control my reading but gave up when she realized I would stay up all night reading with a flashlight every book she banned. Meanwhile, these same adults reminded me repeatedly how lucky I was not to live in the USSR, where media were censored.

Now, as an adult, the newspaper person in me opposes all censorship. The psychologist in me worries about media, though.

I have long gone to two writers on the subject: Marshall McLuhan and Carl Jung. McLuhan is famous for his aphorisms, especially "the medium is the message," which describes how the character of a medium communicates as much as, if not more than, its contents. Carl Jung, the Swiss depth psychologist, taught that the foundation, the medium, of the psyche is images. Freud, from whom he split, also taught that the unconscious expresses its forbidden wishes in the images of dreams and fantasies.

Now, the electronic media of television and the internet are image-based. That could mean, if Freud and Jung were right, that media have a capacity for expressing and containing the unconscious - that aspect of the psyche that is repressed, split off, disowned, denied or is, in Jung's terms, prior to consciousness.

Thus, television becomes an endless dirty joke, revealing, in the way a symptom does, our discomfort with sex. Violence, which Freud noticed we repress in order to build civilizations, is as pervasive as sex in film and television. The internet likewise is dense with erotic images and, as we've learned from Littleton, it also is full of recipes for murder. Thus the internet could be described as the culture's unconscious. (Painting and theater, then film, served the same function to greater degrees in earlier times.)

There's a recent example of how split off the contents of the internet can be. The Heaven's Gate Cult announced its suicide on its web site well in advance. Nobody paid much attention. Likewise, the Littleton boys announced their intentions in cyberspace and only one person took notice. It's not that people don't read these threats. But, as expressions of the unconscious, they just aren't acknowledged as significant - just as we deny the eruption of the unconscious when it occurs in ordinary life in the form of dreams, slips of the tongue, fantasies, intuitions and strange synchronicities.

Freud and Jung agreed that the unconscious drives most of our behavior. Thus, in a sense, you could say that what is contained in the internet as unconscious material is already driving us. Freud regarded the repression of destructive drives as necessary to survival and healthy functioning. But he also noticed that the will to destruction is a given with human nature. An eruption of the drive into consciousness - through, for example, a direct and rapid confrontation with the contents of the unconscious during trauma -- can be destabilizing, precipitating psychotic states, the enactment of the violent impulse.

So, there is, rooted in depth psychology, a strong argument in favor of the idea that media like the internet have potentially powerful negative effects on behavior. History is full of the way art - from Stravinski's Firebird to Edvard Munch's The Sick Child - has precipitated violent reactions in the past.

Interestingly, the idea has gained some further support in an indirect way from neurobiology. The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 28, 1999) reported research that demonstrates how anxiety and fear disorders may be the result of exposure to images that are completely unavailable to recollection. Even empathetic response to televised images from, say, Kosovo, can create anxiety attacks long after initial exposure to them, they argue.

The reverse, a therapeutics of the image, is also observed. When people with panic disorder or phobias, for example, are asked to engage in positive imagery exercises of the sort often used in cognitive therapy, they are often able to override the original imagery's effects - even though they may never be able specifically to recollect it.

Thus psychology and empirical science alike conclude that unconscious imagery connected to destructive drives can have powerful effects on individuals. And both promote the healing power of the beautiful, even when particular causes of dread and anxiety are unidentifiable.

At the same time - and this may be the most important piece - they both acknowledge that there is utterly no way to control the impact of images when they first arise. Each individual responds differently. Thus censorship is ineffective. On the other hand, because these images are mainly repressed, the way they are going to affect us when they do erupt into consciousness partly depends on our relationship to the unconscious, the medium, itself.

If we are respectful of the way the unseen drives us, of the way media become screens for the projection of our unconscious wishes, we may be less inclined to overlook what we see in cyberspace, more attuned to the way we can become completely possessed by what we refuse to acknowledge as real. This of course requires that we, as a culture, undertake a more conscious orientation toward the aggressive and erotic impulses of children - a breaking of the taboo against their discussion and symbolic enactment in schools and churches. The acts of governments like Australia's, by attempting to require repression, can only have effects completely reverse to what they intend.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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