The Year of the Mediaphobe

In 1995 paranoia about the information revolution transcended cultural debate to become a national trauma.

Published December 2, 1995 9:27AM (EST)

In 1995 paranoia about the information revolution transcended cultural debate to become a national trauma. Books like Kirkpatrick Sale's "Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution" and Clifford Stoll's "Silicon Snake Oil" all warned that computer technology was risk-laden, dehumanizing, or economically destructive. Movies like "Disclosure," "The Net" and "Virtuosity" suggested that new technology is invasive, a threat to democracy and freedom, or just plain murderous. Politicians like Bob Dole portrayed a screen-driven culture as undermining the entire value system of America -- quick to blame the recent torching of a New York subway toll booth clerk on the movie "Money Train" but silent about the M-1 rifle the robbers left behind. Dole, an unyielding opponent of gun control, called on those in Hollywood who "engage in a pornography of violence" to do "some serious soul-searching."

Meanwhile, Senator Jim Exon (who sports one of the worst wigs in public life) sponsored a bill to regulate "lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" imagery in cyberspace. And former Secretary of Education William Bennett (the best-selling author of a trilogy of books on morals and virtues) became the spiritual leader of this media reform crusade, expanding his attacks on gangsta rap to include the "immoral" content of television talk shows.

In July Time published its now infamous "Cyberporn" cover story, based on a highly suspect study conducted by a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate. In September, the FBI raided alleged child pornographers across the country in an America Online sting. Newspapers and magazines warned of bomb-makers, militias and pornographers loose on the Net, stalking America's gullible, helpless, and presumably ignorant children. So did local newscasts, which regularly ran series on "cyber-crime."

"What's lurking online?" warned the promo for one such "special report" on a local New York TV station this spring. "You'll be shocked." What was lurking online? Dirty pictures, of course.

The Great Popular Culture Hysteria of 1995 is expected to result in at least one new law aimed at the Net -- most likely a reintroduced Exon bill. This digital crackdown will be cheered not only on the Christian Right but throughout suburbia. Wherever parents get together -- at PTA meetings, on the sidelines of soccer matches, at dinner parties -- there is clucking over violent cartoons, provocative rap and rock lyrics, graphic videos, and digital dangers. "She doesn't read anymore." "He ought to be doing his homework first." "I won't let them watch all that junk." "They just turn into zombies." "My phone bill is going through the roof." "How do you know what they're doing up there? They could be talking to anybody."

Living rooms and kids' bedrooms have become cultural battlegrounds. Turn off the TV. Get off the computer. We're going to block MTV, drop AOL, cancel the cable. The President of the United States advocated installation of a "V" chip in televisions to enable parents to block all but the televised images they approve of -- and Congress, which agreed with him on almost nothing, rushed to make it law.

America Online, more and more aping the behavior of the traditional media organizations it is trying to supplant, proudly announced new blocking software of its own. The company "wants to empower parents with the appropriate tools to restrict access to various parts of AOL and the Internet for their children," said a company official.

The Mediaphobe is undoubtedly happy to hear the good news -- the media and the government are responding to his fears. Increasingly flummoxed by all the choices facing his offspring, he wants to ban things more and more these days. He feels the ground shifting, his fixed points collapsing. The Mediaphobe frequently couches his panic in terms of dangers to others, particularly children. But he's really afraid for himself, of what he doesn't know and is too lazy to learn, of the new and scary world on the other side of the screen.

Mediaphobia has, in fact, become one of the country's few unifying movements, a common cause that brings together everyone from Jesse Helms to Tipper Gore, from conservative values crusaders to educators to feminists to liberal baby-boomer parents. People who agree on little else agree that the media is taking us to hell in an electronic handbasket. And invariably the demons that most arouse their ire are pornography and violent imagery.

Pornography is the media's despised bastard child. Wherever media exist, pornography tags along, a far more resilient and influential force than the poobahs of the press would ever openly acknowledge. It morphs into whatever form media take. It is widely believed to be the killer app that drove the VCR boom of the '80s. It sells millions of magazines and books. It is a potent force behind the growth of the Net.

Pornography is immutable. Like a river coursing towards the sea, it always finds a way around, over or through all the obstacles desperately thrown up to stop it. It dates as far back as recorded history. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles offers a standing exhibit of exquisitive clay vases dating from the 3rd or 4th Century B.C. in Athens, the height of classical civilization. Painted on the vases are graphic depictions of homosexual and heterosexual intercourse, in almost every conceivable position.

Mediaphobia has, in fact, become one of the country's few unifying movements, a common cause that brings together everyone from Jesse Helms to Tipper Gore, from conservative values crusaders to educators to feminists to liberal baby-boomer parents.

As Walter Kendrick observed in "The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture," erotica was once controlled by affluent men -- the only people who could afford it or were literate enough to read it. But technology, that great democratizing force, has made pornography available to the masses. Baby-boomer parents and members of Congress may be the last people in America to grasp the notion that new media, for better or worse, are uncensorable. Children cannot be barricaded or encased in protective social bubbles. Computers, modems, VCR's, faxes, cellular technology, 900 numbers, 24-hour cable channels and hundreds of magazines make it as impossible to "protect" children from graphic representations of the real world as it is for the judicial system to find jurors who are totally ignorant of cases like that of O.J. Simpson.

It makes sense that exposure to pornography can exacerbate the problems of some disturbed or dysfunctional people. But it is far from clear that images of sodomy or other kinds of sexual behavior are in themselves harmful to children. Furthermore, the panic over electronic seduction of minors is wildly overblown. Time magazine quoted the executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as saying there have been "10 or 12" cases in the past year of children "being seduced or lured online into situations where they are victimized." This is horrible for the victims but, if accurate, it's a tiny number -- evidence not of the dangers of the Net but of its relative safety.

Of the more than seven million American households with online accounts, 35 per cent have a child under 18. With so dense a concentration of children online, luring them into dangerous situations should be like "shooting fish in a barrel," says Fred Cotton of Search, a computer crime organization. But it isn't, he says, because kids can grasp which situations are dangerous and which aren't, a counterpoint to the phobic image of the vulnerable child helplessly waiting to be preyed upon.

Mediaphobes are afraid, but they can't say precisely what they're afraid of. They are quick to denounce censorship, but quicker to censor. They pride themselves on their open and serious-mindedness, but seem terrified of new ideas and change. They want their children to thrive in the world, but block access to the very tools and cultural expressions they most need to learn about. They never manage to ban or block the right things. Instead of getting rid of the guns which kill people, they go after cartoons, movies, rap groups and online access, which don't. Instead of altering the circumstances which create violence, they lobby for the V-chip so they don't have to see pictures of it anymore.

We know what's killing young people, and it isn't music lyrics, cartoons or computers.

According to the Justice Department, 57 percent of young homicide victims are killed with firearms. In fact, between 1979 and 1989, the non-firearm homicide rate decreased 29 percent. Once again, the phenomena is selective. In 1989 the firearm homicide death rate among black males age 15 to 19 in metropolitan counties was 6.5 times the rate in suburban and rural counties.

In other words, the primary consumers of new media -- the suburban middle class of all races and ethnicities -- are among the safest groups in America.

Middle-class baby boomers are profoundly anxious parents. They have adopted every other group's social problems -- crime, AIDS, drugs -- and focused these anxieties on their own children, raising them in a culture where they are continually warned about everything from sex to strangers to...well, pornography. Mediaphobic reporting plays into boomers' deepest fears; they are attentive to each new spate of warnings and hair-raising "special reports," using them as rationales for further encircling their children in protective cocoons.

But change is inevitable and pervasive. Short of the most Draconian kinds of censorship and Ludditism, there is no stopping new media and their young consumers. If anybody's going to have to change, it will be us, not them. The specters of pornography and violence, new media's ever-present shadows, do not justify a war against the young and their driving curiosity about emerging forms of communication.

The air is filled with alarms about technology and the wicked things it transmits. Don't buy it. America's intensifying cultural wars are not about preserving culture or keeping our children safe. They are about opportunistic politicians like Bob Dole capitalizing on people's fears, pointing the finger at everybody but themselves. They are about bad reporting from lazy journalists who know better, working for institutions that don't tell much the truth. They are about hucksters like William Bennett selling moral fixes in hardcover at $30 a pop that don't work. And perhaps more than anything else, they are a blistering indictment of a culture that can't bear to deal with its real problems, so instead tries to outlaw the pictures, stories and songs that remind us of them.

By Jon Katz


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