The Petraeus drama reflects the enticements and betrayals of our new, disembodied modes of discourse. The come-ons, the flirtations, the stalking, the alleged harassment: all were abetted by the deceptive cloak of cyberspace, and all were immortalized there. It’s a story of people not just behaving badly but e-mailing badly as well….
Back in the era of a Jane Austen novel….Romance had a rhythm that accommodated reconsideration. It had a built-in cooling-off period.
The sexting, cyber-assisted hookups and online affairs of today have nothing of the sort. They unfold at the speed of impulse, in part because they have such a hypothetical, provisional aspect, negotiated as they are in a cloud of sorts, no contact required. But their weightlessness is paired with their durable record.
So writes Frank Bruni in yesterday’s New York Times, earning himself a place in my Blame The Internet Hall of Fame.
Bruni’s argument would make perfect sense…if world history suggested that everyone kept their pants zipped until the Internet came along to unleash our adulterous impulses.
In the world I know, ill-thought-out affairs long pre-date the invention of email. It makes just as much sense to point to Mad Men (real and fictional) and explain the adulterousness of that era with the observation that it was so much easier to cheat when you could be plausibly unreachable — as opposed to today, when the failure to answer a spouse’s text or phone call is suspicious in and of itself.
Here is the thing: people cheat. They do not cheat because technology makes it easier. They do not stop cheating because technology makes it harder. They do not, in general, cheat on the basis of some formal risk analysis that measures the probability of discovery against their knowledge of email encryption techniques. They cheat because they have suspended the risk analysis lobe of their brain, at least for a few minutes.
It would be incredibly comforting to think that the Internet has made us into the kind of imperfect beings who cheat on their spouses, compromise their professional integrity or make stupid mistakes. Because then all it would take is an off switch — or better yet, a global magnetic pulse — to wipe out online temptation and human weakness.
The thing is, we’re not likely to throw the off switch anytime soon. And even if we did, guess what we’d find: imperfect, often unfaithful humans, struggling with our frailties offline as much as we did online.