The Age of the Cyber Lynch Mob

One of many silly incidents of 2015 was the brouhaha over Halloween costumes. This year it was about the hobo costume.  Angry protesters criticized it for being insensitive to the homeless. One commentator, after pointing out that a “hobo” is not the same thing as a modern “homeless person”, said that a truly destitute person has bigger worries than being outraged over Halloween costumes. “Banning a hobo costume doesn’t make the homeless feel better. It makes you feel better. This is the lazy liberalism in which scolding has become a substitute for actually doing something.” He also went on to an expletive filled tirade against “self-righteous busy-bodies trying to leech the fun out of everything”. And this commentator was Bill Maher, the socialist, atheist comedian of the far left. It is not a good sign for the future when a leftist tells leftists that they are going too far.

The same busy bodies were in overdrive when Justine Sacco, a senior director of corporate communications tweeted this joke, one that was meant to ridicule the bubble of entitlement and false sense of security that White Americans tended to live in.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

The poorly constructed joke was taken out of context and what followed was a global witch hunt for a “racist” that encompassed the twitter-sphere and destroyed Sacco’s life and career before her plane landed in Johannesburg 11 hours later. She not only lost her job and suffered from PTSD, but lost dating prospects due to her notoriety and was disgraced in front of her extended family in South Africa who were African National Congress supporters — the party of Nelson Mandela. Her old tweets were unearthed and turned into a BuzzFeed article. A New York Post photographer stalked her on her way to the gym. A punishment clearly over sized for the crime was dispensed by people who had no authority and faced no consequences, on an univestigated allegation, delivered in exchange for nothing but the pure joy of bringing down a stranger.

The self-congratulatory lazy liberalism instantly praises the tormentors of perceived villains, with “likes” and “retweets”. That was how Sacco’s tweet was passed around by people eager to see her fired. The joyous festivities of the public lynching had no place for empathy toward the strange fruit hanging from a tree. The jeering mob just cheered her execution without a sober thought as to whether there was a living human on the end of the rope they pulled. And everybody believed they were participating in something good; an unquestionably good deed of bringing down a demon. The irony is that they used to hang black people with the same fervor, over allegations of such small “crimes” as catcalling a white woman.

Why do we need to write about dystopian futures when we live in an Kafkaesque one today? In 2013, at a conference for tech developers, a man joked to another man, in a voice lower than conversation level, about the attachments for computers and mobile devices that are commonly called dongles. A woman seated in a row in front of them stood up and took a picture of them and immediately tweeted  “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” The two men were promptly fired, losing their jobs and their ability to support their families. The man posted his predicament on the internet and the woman suffered a backlash. She was demonized, received death threats, and eventually was fired herself. Homeless and frightened, she slept on a series of couches with friends and relatives. One misunderstood joke ruined three lives all because we cannot talk to each other politely anymore.

If George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick and William Burroughs collaborated on a vision of a dystopian future, they would not even come close. As a child of the 20th century, I always imagined the next century to be an enlightened future bolstered by advanced technology. Who would have imagined that the 21st century would be a never-ending 24-hour global lynch mob? Every human with a smartphone is as self-righteous and gleeful as the mob that Billie Holiday sang about, happily confident about the “justice” they deliver.

And of course we are delivering justice because we are all victims now. Every person is clambering in the race to become more-victimized-than-thou. What an age to be a writer, when a single line of words can unjustly destroy your life.

Then again, anything can be good for a writer. We have been regurgitating the same old stories since Greek times. Once every century or so, some genuinely new plot elements or character models are introduced. A vampire. A zombie. A mad scientist. A space alien. A private detective. A man-made life form. Technology run amok. A world of living dinosaurs. A dystopian future. Most of these concepts were introduced in the 19th century. The newest addition to our story-telling lexicon is the concept of a predatory pedophile introduced by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955. You can argue that William Gibson’s concept of cyberspace is a new addition on a par with literary additions of the 19th century, but even that was introduced in 1982.

If Kafka could create Der Process and Das Schloss from the emerging contradictions of the early 20th century, certainly the virtual lynch mob society we see in the world today can become the springboard for the fictional creation of a completely new kind of surreal.

Writers are still rehashing the ideas created by Kafka, Doyle, Shelly, Stoker, Orwell and Dick and placing them on the same Greek plot lines. But we are already living in a disastrous world that outstrips the imagination of the most pessimistic of the greatest writers. We are deceiving ourselves if we think the situation will get any better. We are standing at the doorstep to a new age of instant gratification for tormentors. The technology can only grow faster and more powerful. If the idea that the mention of a dongle at a tech conference can ruin three lives seems ridiculous today, it will most likely sound quaint tomorrow. People who are offended at the insensitivity of others are rewarded with validation through “likes” and “retweets”. And any incidental victim of a lynching is forgotten and discarded in the rubbish heap of memory. There is nothing but incentive and reinforcement in this world for this trend to grow. What could be the logical conclusion of this trajectory?

Whatever it is, it will create the most beguiling fiction, and the most dreadful reality.


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