Chapter Seven: The Internet

VII. The Springs Of Social Behaviour On And Off The Internet

Before trying to determine whether the Internet will be a force for social good, or the opposite, it is instructive to explore a little the psychological mechanics of social behaviour.

The starting point is the assertion that undesirable social behaviour stems from lack of a robust internalized moral structure and that this in turn results from the absence of group-delivered behavioural rules. In Jungian terms, the anti-social individual fails to share in a positive and effective collective unconscious.

If that starting point is accepted, then anything that can increase involvement in (the right type of) groups is going to increase the power of the individual's collective unconscious and decrease his tendency towards anti-social feelings or behaviour.

Of course this is why Lord Baden-Powell started the Boy Scouts; it is why Prince Charles started the Prince's Trust; and there are hundreds of other examples which go to prove that association is seen as a positive tool in building 'the right kind of personality'.

The real world, as it is called, is not going to deliver associative goods in the necessary quantities. On the contrary, people are ever more individualistic – and encouraged to be so by our culture – and for some time to come (but not for ever) the State will continue to squeeze out competitive deliverers of morality. The 'empowerment' of individuals will continue, with bad social results.

On the Internet, as much as in the 'real' world, desired behaviour is the result of moral rules which are taken on board, or at any rate, obeyed by the individual. Broadly speaking, there are three levels or channels through which these rules can be delivered, and these will apply just as much on the Internet as off it:

Which of these channels is more effective, or or off the Internet?

In order to answer this question it's necessary to take a brief digression through the question of consciousness, which was broached in the Introduction, taken further in Chapter 2 (The Globalization of Culture), and is continued here.

The problem of consciousness is unresolved, but it is at least possible to distinguish the cognitive activities that take place in the illuminated arena of awareness from that awareness itself. There is no a priori reason why these activities should have to take place within 'awareness' rather than outside it. Thinking to oneself, 'Ah, that is Jones and look, today he is growing a beard', is an activity that could perfectly well take place in an unconscious part of the brain, and probably does, alongside the fact that one is aware of it.

'What shall I do next?' is a slightly more difficult case; but this is a question that the brain is answering on all sorts of levels all the time. Again, what is the biological or evolutionary benefit of having awareness of the posing and/or answering of this question?

Many evolutionary biologists believe that consciousness arose as a part of groupishness: in their view, the complexity of the moment-to-moment decision process when surrounded by perhaps dozens of your peers, and needing to take into account a complex mass of moral precepts, both internalized and external, requires a filtering process, and they propose that consciousness is the most effective way of creating such a filter.

This explanation does not however sit well with the fact that, as noted in the Introduction, the set of moral precepts that developed along with the basic groupishness of humans is housed and delivered unconsciously. The complex networks of feelings that govern social relationships are also not habitually experienced consciously; it would be extremely complicated (but not necessarily unproductive) to try to be conscious of the intricate balance of emotions and principles that cause us to 'behave' in a particular way to a particular person at a particular moment. When we do try to control our behaviour consciously, it often comes across as 'contrived' or 'false', because of our lack of access to the underlying data. Sometimes, after the event, one can analyze the causative factors of a piece of behaviour, but for the most part it is spontaneous and remains unexplained.

Pending the results of further research on how the brain actually works in complex social situations, one can only say that social behaviour is a complex mixture of conscious and unconscious processes, and that there is no reason to think that behaviour on the Internet in a group situation will be any different from 'real world' behaviour in a social setting. Moral behaviour, on or off the Internet, is delivered by an unconscious set of precepts and feelings; and in addition in many or even most situations there will be explicit group rules, as illustrated above. External frames of reference will also apply (the law of the land, for instance).