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Red lights go on in the market place

Very few people would take the risk of writing an article in a newspaper saying that the market place is a considerable risk to society because young people might stumble on a sex shop! Yet that is exactly what many journalists do in harping on the dangers of pornography on the Net. The same goes for a good many politicians. That the parallel between sex shops and pornography on the Internet may not be a hundred percent valid is probably true. That pornography on the Net be a problem is no doubt true. However, the way journalists and politicians talk about it may well also be a problem.

Pointing to a problem that needs a solution can be a very praise-worthy activity, but repeatedly doing so and in such a way as to evoke the subject en passant, rather like waving a red flag, should make us wonder. In a recent article in an otherwise serious French-language Swiss daily, le Nouveau Quotidien, Pierre Grosjean begins a half page article about schools and the Internet with a short paragraph of which the second sentence is "Some parents already worry that their children will rush to porno sites, and they are right." (NQ, 17.10.97) The same sentence is reproduced in bold under a large photo of a five-year old Shirley Temple like girl, fingers poised over the keyboard of a computer. The rest of the article hardly mentions the subject but talks about positive experiences using Internet in Swiss schools.

What exactly is the mechanism behind this "red flag-waving"? Edward de Bono describes it rather graphically in a number of his books about lateral thinking (for example, I'm right you are wrong, Penguin, 1990). If you can manage to stick a negative label on one aspect of something, no matter how small that aspect is, there is a strong likelihood that the whole thing will be seen as negative. This mechanism, which is frequently used to discredit people especially in politics, unfortunately makes it very difficult to consider the more positive aspects of the person or thing under attack.

Why then wave the red flag of pornography when writing about the Internet (and schools)? Judging from the rest of the above mentioned article it is possible that Pierre Grosjean, in evoking a number of negative points about the Internet, wanted to show that he wasn't dupe to the widespread fascination for the Internet. Should that be the case, is such a suitable method to show you have doubts? More generally however, the frequency with which journalists point to pornography on the Net makes one wonder if there are not other motivations behind this seeming obsession. It would be interesting to know if it goes hand in hand with the fascination for the technology itself and the just as frequently made triumphant predictions of up-and-coming ubiquity of information and communications technologies...

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise. Share or comment
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Created: October 17th, 1997 - Last up-dated: october 17th, 1997