It’s an intriguing and maybe alarming fact that often the very things that can do most good can also do most harm. Doctors make the best poisoners, and a ‘drug’ can either cure or kill. The internet is similarly ambivalent.
My brother, James Atkins, has written an article about internet addiction. I find it interesting because people usually study this topic in a fragmentary way. They ask about addiction to computer porn or Islamic radicalisation. They will then emphasise the specific elements of each issue: he got hooked on this because of a personal sex problem, she was radicalised because she was wanting to serve a higher cause, and so on. This makes it easier for us to think of such addictions as abnormal, which is comforting, because we all want to pretend that we couldn’t have been affected ourselves in that same way. But of course that’s also dangerous, because we don’t realise that we need to be alert to the dangers for ourselves too.
My brother James’ experience is significant because it shows how even a very innocent interest – vegetarianism and avoiding cruelty to animals – could lead people down dangerous paths unless they are very self-aware. It might help us to understand better the specific dangers of using the internet and how to guard against them.
I started using Twitter in about May or June to distribute some cartoons I had devised about climate policy. I then started following some writers and journalists on the topics of environment and veganism. I started coming across tweets about animal cruelty – these led me from the torture of dogs in the United States to the slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa, to the way the Chinese are destroying the world’s wildlife for fashion and medicine … and then to the grotesque murder of whales and dolphins by people in Japan and the Faroe Islands.
Day by day over the summer I read a pure, intense, undiluted and uncontested stream of horror – with no counterclaim, critical analysis or nuance. Refined, concentrated evil was injected directly into my brain hour by hour. There were no obstacles or imperfections or resistance in the information to slow that stream. And, unless I took the time to think hard, there was nothing for my brain to work on, to chew on. There was nothing like fibre or complex molecules in fruit which slow the release of sugar into my bloodstream. The stuff just went straight to the mankind-is-evil receptor in my brain and painted it a fiery red….
As a parallel to the way sugar combined with lack of activity make you physically obese, I was thinking that intense, uncontested messaging through Twitter makes you intellectually obese: you get bloated with a one-sided world view, and that can lead to radicalisation. Unless you are by nature critical and sceptical, it is terribly difficult to defend yourself against this: to have the mental energy and discipline to come up with counter-arguments or context and perspective to each tweet, especially when broadly they espouse a world-view that you are sympathetic to.