Time marches on, and the coming backlash against the internet is getting ever closer. I ended my last post on this subject with idle speculation about the internet would be downgraded to banal or actually evil:

The current crop of tech-lovers are certainly not evil themselves, and we haven’t yet seen anything that is both clearly evil and fundamentally tied to internet-enabled communication. Wikileaks, though, gives us an interesting glimpse at what may be to come. If a ponce like Julian Assange can embarrass the most powerful country in the world and get away with it, then it’s possible that someone who’s smart, ambitious, and evil could do something similar in a way that would be really disastrous. Our e-Hitler could easily get the sympathy of most of the world’s hackers and geeks, who would gladly participate in an open-source world-domination project written in Python if it were framed in the right way. And if that happened, you’d better believe that the rest of the world would turn against the tech-lovers right quick.

However, that’s a far-fetched scenario, the sort of random thing I was able to come up with in a few minutes of theorizing. Recently I read an article about Jaron Lanier in the Smithsonian that suggests a more plausible avenue to internet evil:

At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.

It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.

Well. Once you put it that way, it seems obvious, doesn’t it?

By this time, it’s a commonplace that internet comment threads, especially those about politics, are a cesspool of hatred and vilification. Everybody knows this. Political orientation doesn’t matter, either: left-leaning and right-leaning comment crowds are equally vitriolic, equally contemptuous of those who disagree, and equally devoid of serious thought and intellectual rigor. There are exceptions, here and there. I know that in my head I keep a short list of sites where I’ll dare to read the comment threads. But basically everything else is guaranteed to be like dipping my face into a toxic pit of filth and hatred.

We all know this. But have we really considered what it means when the internet becomes the dominant arena of political discussion? I can carry on a cordial discussion of politics with my neighbor, but I won’t risk a discussion of politics with basically anyone, unless I’m well-prepared with a flame-retardant suit and some sharpened mots justes of my own. Is this what we want? It seems pretty clear that the spread of the internet is making our political dialog stupider, angrier, and more extreme—in other words, that the internet is actively making the world a worse place.

At the end of the article, Lanier suggests that we could see the internet’s capacity for mass action set up a legitimately evil mass movement, an echo of the outbreaks of popular cruelty that found their expression under fascism and communism. I’m afraid to say, that sounds really plausible. It also sounds like something that I don’t want to see.

I never get tired of talking about Tolkien. And occasionally I see something really great, which I really have to share. Behold, Alan Jacobs taking on a common, but misguided criticism of Tolkien.

It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

Modern liberalism likes to think that all our problems are epistemological: we are afflicted by never knowing with sufficient clarity what we ought to do. Our fictions tend to reflect that assumption. Tolkien, not being a modern liberal, thought it more interesting to explore situations when people know what they need to know but may lack the strength of will to act on that knowledge. He might say, and with some justification, that contemporary literary fiction is not simplistic in regard to such problems but oblivious to them.

Forgive me, Alan, for quoting about half of your article. It was too good to omit anything.