Ethics take a hike in the Wild West web

SO poor old HMV.

Since the collapse of the chain, there’s been many a sad word written about how the social aspect of music buying is all but dead. The idea of browsing, of chatting with the people in the shop or taking a punt on the musical unknown, is nearly extinguished. And of course it’s all the fault of the internet: not just because of illegal downloading, but because the worldwide web has eroded all the mystery.

Without even getting out of bed you can now get access almost instantaneously to what the record shop used to provide: the size of the stock is vast, there are links to other people who like particular forms of music and there’s no such thing as an “unknown” band anymore. In one sense this is more egalitarian: in the digital record store everyone is equally cool. But it also makes the process more remote and passionless: all the social and cultural encoding which used to be connected to popular music is rinsed away. There’s an old story about when Johnny Marr and Morrissey of The Smiths first met, they checked out each others’ shoes and spoke about what bands they liked. And this conversation wasn’t just to establish if they could work together in a band, but to discover if they were from similar tribes. The music and the shoes were signifiers of the kinds of people they were; of the way they viewed the world.

On the web, there’s far less of this: individuals present themselves in, at best, a highly edited way. Our digital selves always stress the positive. No one is ever depressed or harassed or insecure. Facebook is an endless stream of people having the most wonderful time, looking their best; Twitter is home to the smart-assed or the righteously angry. We become distanced from our real, physical selves, where we communicate so much through gesture and smell, where we have to look people in the eye and consider the real-world implications of what we say and do.

This also distances us from our moral selves. Most people wouldn’t consider walking into HMV and shoving a CD into their pocket because the physical act is obviously stealing. But downloading a track from some dodgy Russian website feels different: real world mores are scrubbed away.

And this has, of course, far darker implications. Distanced from our real selves, it’s much more easy to be mean and abusive, to give in to prejudice and misplaced fury free from any of the normal social and moral conventions: conventions which in many instances are aimed at making us better people. And we all know what tragic results this can yield.

In time, the digital world will hopefully develop its own moral codes. But in the meantime, it’s an ethical Wild West: where people present the best version of themselves and sometimes indulge the worst.

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