The happiest event in the life of a news editor is the discovery of a menace that does not yet sufficiently trouble the public's spirit. One morning last week The Globe and Mail greeted us over breakfast with a baleful front-page headline: "Internet can be a home wrecker." The story said that about half of 3,522 citizens polled by Ekos Research Associates claimed to know people who "spend so much time at home using the Internet and other computer life."
The Ekos people call their report, "Information Highway and the Canadian Communications Household." They seem not to have noticed that "information highway" is the most inept metaphor of our time. A highway is what the Internet does not resemble: highways are planned and controlled, whereas the Internet is unplanned and uncontrolled. The researchers did learn, however, that many Canadians escaped infection when this awkward term spread through the media like a rogue virus four years ago: 38% of our fellow citizens remained, in autumn 1997, unaware of the very phrase "information highway." (Lucky them!) But if the respondents didn't know the appropriate cliché, they understood what was expected of them: be worried. An imaginative journalist or pollster can turn just about anything into an affliction, and people who talk to pollsters know that in this process they have their part to play. As members of the public they are expected to spend their lives in a bottomless pit of journalism-induced anxiety, where all of life is configured as a series of perils.
The Internet may well be a home wrecker, as the headline said, but so is everything else. Golf, for instance, can wreck a home, likewise shopping, or watching football games. Thinking too much about money produces unhappy families, but not thinking about it enough does the same. Sex, while often responsible for forming families, frequently breaks them up. Is there, in fact, anything at all that cannot hurt family life? What about a heading saying "Gardening can be a home wrecker"? Impossible? Ask enough concerned Canadians to ponder it and, 19 times out of 20, you'll find marriages brutally destroyed by excessive devotion to delphiniums.
Economic news follows the same dire pattern. When oil prices rise, it's a calamity (how will we heat our houses?), but it's disastrous when they go down (what will happen to Alberta?). I began avoiding agriculture news some years ago, when I read that the soya bean industry was in distress because an abundant crop had driven down the price. (A careless God had been overly generous.) In real estate, prices are either so high that young people will never be able to buy houses or so low that house owners are heartsick over losing fortunes that they never possessed but dreamt of someday realizing.
The computer provides a multitude of reasons for worry, many of them conflicting. We should worry if people are not computer literate, or cannot afford computers, but when they acquire them and learn to use them, new problems arise. The Internet, being complicated and relatively new, plays into our infinite capacity for unease. More than half of the people in the Ekos survey believed that new technology is "reducing the level of privacy in Canada," though in my experience hardly anyone can explain what the hell they mean by this (something about giant corporations knowing which breakfast food you bought last week).
And then there's the threat of fraud. For years, imaginative news stories have told us about the potential for theft on the Internet. Clearly, these reports have made an impression on our collective consciousness. Nine out of 10 people in the Ekos Research poll said they wouldn't give their credit card numbers over the Internet. They fear that someone will steal their numbers and do something bad with them. People routinely leave card numbers in strange stores and restaurants, often in strange cities, and many give them out over the telephone. But the idea of those same numbers flashing through cyberspace, vulnerable to attack by Russian Mafia or Colombian drug lords, spooks our consumers. Clearly, these are people who don't have enough to worry about.
Three-quarters of the respondents believe the government should step right in and fix that situation. Other roles for government are suggested, which might be related to the fact that five federal departments (plus some private companies) commissioned this survey. Respondents are worried about pornography on the Internet, and two out of three believe governments should regulate it. Of course, they were not asked to explain which governments should do it, or how. My own view is that it would be as sensible and practical as monitoring telephone calls. Nevertheless, the answers demonstrate that a great many citizens still regard censorship as an agreeable prospect.
But then, it's only fair to acknowledge my own deeply felt complaint. The Internet being the best research tool since the book, I'm furious that they--the people who control everything--didn't have the decency and consideration to invent it in the 1950s, when I was starting as a journalist. I am aggrieved and I am victimized. Worse, I have no idea where to send my complaint.