More on Littleton:
Is the internet dangerous?
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
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,
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
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,
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
Archetypal Advice |