Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics and New Media
Editor: Mark J. P. Wolf
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003
Review Published: March 2007
Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics and New Media, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf, purports to examine the relationship between new media technologies and moral and ethical decision-making in three broad categories: technology, community, and religion. Virtual Morality is an attempt to think through some of the problems caused by the development of new media. Wolf frames Virtual Morality with three criteria developed by Aristotle and Aquinas for understanding the moral dimensions of any act:
The first section of Virtual Morality considers the relationship among morals, values, new media and technology. In "Digital Media: The Scope of 'Computer Ethics,'" Gordon Hull takes sides in the debate on whether technology raises new questions or whether technology is merely the occasion for new versions of older moral questions. Hull concludes that instead of a category as broad and abstruse as ethics, law and politics are better categories for approaching these problems because they do not reduce problems to generalities that obscure the particularities that make the moral problems posed by technology unique. Hull's point is well taken, but he does not flesh out what he means by politics and law or why they are superior to ethics. It is clear from Hull's chapter that one approach to ethics does not adequately address the moral problems created by technology, but it is not clear why ethics has to be abandoned altogether instead of approached differently.
"Empathy in Computer-Mediated Communications" by Emma Rooksby addresses one of the most pressing questions caused by technology: how is one to relate to others who are technologically distant from me? These are people who are less than a disembodied voice on the phone; they are words on a screen. Disembodiment leads to misunderstandings of meaning and intention, and this in turn inhibits our opportunities to communicate with others in a meaningful way. Rooksby argues that phenomenological empathy can overcome the distance between people who only encounter each other through technology. By paying attention to the style that a person demonstrates in their communication, one can gain an understanding of the person behind the communication by approaching the other's experiences as one's own. As Rooksby writes:
"From Simulation to Emulation: Ethics, Worldviews, and Video Games" by the editor, Mark J. P. Wolf, is the most persuasive essay in this section. What begins as a typical complaint about violence in video games becomes a convincing argument for thinking about the way that violence is encouraged by being embedded in the narrative worldviews that give meaning to the action in video games. Wolf goes beyond the facile link that the display of violent imagery in video games makes the people who play them violent, and argues a much more subtle point: "Video games, however, can be causally linked with certain behaviors for the simple reason that these behaviors are required to play the game" (64). Aggression and violence are required to succeed in the game world; video games endorse violence as a response to confrontation by making violence necessary. Not all games are bad; they can help develop positive skills such a problem-solving skills, patience, and powers of observation. However, "certain ways of thinking like overcompetitiveness and the accruing of personal wealth," are also endorsed (73). Wolf concludes by saying that "many of the best-selling games are non-violent" (he uses Myst as an example),and that "this may signal a change in the marketplace and encourage developers to expand the range of the medium and explore its possibilities" (75). The success of the Grand Theft Auto series, to name just one, indicates that game developers have not taken up Wolf's challenge.
"Virtually Impacted: Designers, Spheres of Meaning, and Virtual Communities" by Paul Ford addresses the question of how technology impacts communities. Ford's contribution to this discussion is to consider what virtual communities mean to persons with disabilities. Ford sees it as a double-edged sword:
The second section of Virtual Morality focuses on community and deals with how communities, in light of new technologies, negotiate the changing moral and ethical landscape. "Communities of Envy: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Virtual Classroom" by Jason Jones takes some of the shine off of the networked classroom and learning environment. The turbulent and chaotic nature of the online community stems from community members being exposed to members of the community who are not bound by community constraints. Work within the community becomes less about the work, and more about negotiating power and seeking stability within the community. Community becomes "a way to reaffirm the student's self, a way to remain whole in the face of classroom power dynamics that could shatter the student's integrity" (100). The response by online teachers should be to pay more attention to pedagogy. Teachers, Jones writes, should "resist adherence to a particular collective identity and to refrain from extolling certain forms of participation as being more community driven than others" (111). Paying more attention to extant speech and "the effects of speech on members of the group rather than on the community" would, according to Jones, reduce aggression and create a more supportive community.
"On-Line Advocacy of Violence and Hate-Group Activity: The Internet as a Platform for the Expression of Youth Aggression and Anxiety" by Jo Ann Oravec establishes two approaches that concerned adults can take when their children encounter hate on-line. The first is the pro-active approach: "Adults directly counter specific forms of hate-group materials and inform young people about the particular perils involved with on-line threats and harassment" (129). The second approach, reactive/vigilant, is better suited for younger children and for people who are more reticent about technology. Oravec writes that "in more reactive/vigilant approaches, the adults who work with young people respond to the various Internet-related problems that emerge, without directly taking steps to inform them about potential hazards before they occur" (119-20).
In "Hating in the Global Village," Chris Nagel analyzes hate and what psychological benefits the hater gains by hating. Hate is part of identity formation; Nagel writes that hate affirms "one's own existence through denying the other's existence or to establish one's own absolutely superior worth by negating the other" (142). Nagel diminishes these identities and communities by calling them inauthentic for their inability to engage in inter-subjective dialogue, for their detachment from objective reality, and for their use of a ready-made context to gauge the contributions of others to their community. Hate can flourish on the Internet, notes Nagel, because all Internet communities are inauthentic:
The final section of Virtual Morality deals with the interplay between technology, religion, and the communication of religious meaning. Heidi Campbell's "Congregation of the Disembodied: A Look at Religious Community on the Internet" examines the ways that The Community of Prophecy ("an online community or kinship of people who believe the Lord has given them some degree of prophetic gifting," p. 184) both utilizes and overcomes the impact of technology on expressions of religious beliefs. The success the community has had stems from a core group of pastors who maintain the integrity of the discussion by guiding it towards appropriate topics and by removing individuals who are disruptive or do not demonstrate the gift of prophecy. The community's successful use of technology to build community indicates that the study of on-line religion might be moving into a new phase. Gone are the days when Internet- caused disembodiment was an impossible obstacle, when the technology was suspect because of its military origins or secularity. As was the case with other technologies (radio and television), it is becoming clear that those who are motivated to spread the word will respond to the limitations posed by that particular technology at the same time that they take advantage of that technology's particular benefits. In this case, the community is able to realize the metaphor of spirit being breathed into words because in this text-based environment, identity and meaning are all textual. It is believed that the Holy Spirit moves through the technology and gives the community life, thus making the metaphor of the spirit giving life a literal reality for community members.
"Free Market Morality: Why Evangelicals Need Free Speech on the Internet" by Maura McCarthy challenges conservative Evangelicals to re-think their stance on wanting to impose speech and content restrictions on the Internet. Evangelicals should embrace a, borrowing from historian Roger Finke (1997), "supply-side religious economy." This idea applies the laws of supply and demand to help understand the appeal of mainstream and non-traditional religions:
In "World Wide Witness: Friendship Evangelism on the Internet," Andrew Careaga explores the reasons why evangelical activity on the Internet achieves better results when undertaken by individuals. Careaga sees the Internet giving "witnessing Christians on-line an opportunity to get back to the New Testament roots of evangelism: meeting real people, a few at a time, and establishing meaningful personal relationships with them" (228). The mode of communication on the Internet allows for a trust-relationship to be developed at the convert's pace:
The final chapter in the collection is "Grave Imagesİ: A Faith Visualized in a Technological Age" by Kathy T. Hettinga. This chapter links the death of the author's husband to her efforts as an artist to use technology to overcome her perception that our culture uses technology to keep people from death. Hettinga was unable to be at her husband's side when he died because doctors were attending to him. When she does get to see him, it is in a room filled with tubes and other medical paraphernalia. The nurse ushers her out of the room when she tries to pull the sheet down from his chin. Hettinga's response is to try to make death -- largely invisible in our culture -- visible. She does this through the Grave Imagesİ project. According to Hettinga:
The last several chapters in Virtual Morality point to the larger problem with the text. Any attempt to find a narrative thread that runs through the book as a whole, or even through the smaller sections, is difficult to the point of being futile. If the challenge of new media to moral and ethical decision making is the way that it challenges traditional ways of understanding the moral dimensions of any act, the chapters that comprise this work seem to be about their respective topics before they are about this theme. None of the chapters takes up the editor's call to investigate the ways that new media technologies challenge moral and ethical reflection. Further, it is unclear if something more subtle is at work. Is the reader supposed to go from the Introduction to the text and ask how traditional ways of understanding the moral dimension of an action are challenged by new media? This leaves the book being a loose collection of chapters united by nothing more than being about a similar topic, but not being about anything specific enough to warrant them being bound together in one volume.
Roger Finke, "The Illusion of Shifting Demand: Supply-Side Interpretations of American Religious History." In T. Tweed, editor, Retelling U.S. Religious History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.
Steven A. Benko:
Steven Benko teaches courses on Religion and ethics at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. His interests are in the area of ethical subjectivity and posthumanism. He has presented papers and published on the relationship between ethics, technology, and posthuman subjectivity. <email@example.com>
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