The Electric Conscience

by JOHN ARMOR May 17, 2010
What is the impact of the current forms of gathering and transmitting information from person to person? Can people be affected by communications they don't use, or even know how to use?
There were five of us around a table in church this morning. All of us used the Internet at least somewhat. Most of us did not use Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Our uses of the photo and video capacities of this generation of cell phones, fell someplace in the middle. But with some thought, the answer was clear. Whether or not we use these means of communication, they do affect us.
I grew up in a small town, Salisbury, Maryland. The town was small enough, and everybody knew everybody else's children enough, that when you did something wrong, folks would tell on you. Odds are your mother would know about it before you even got home to tell your side of the story.
You got away with almost nothing. In time, you developed your inner mother, otherwise known as your conscience, which told you what was right and wrong in most situations. The extent to which you obeyed that voice determined whether you were a "good" man or woman. Yes, fathers were disciplinarians. But they were not the frontline troops. Mothers were.
Times have changed. Most mothers aren't home, either to look out the window and see that Li'l Johnny is getting into trouble, or to receive the call about the miscreant, to be loaded for bear when he gets home. Furthermore, there are many voices in the media, down the block, next door, in school that say with respect to almost any activity, "Sure. Go ahead. That's okay."
There is no substitute for a conscience, of course. Self-restraint is the main civilizing factor in all successful societies. The experiments have been run, both with rats and with humans. When those individuals who have no self-restraint pass a certain low level in any society, that society is doomed to failure.
The new, electronic conscience, however, is a substitute for people in high places. People who engage in dishonesty, corruption, gross immorality, behavior that is dangerous to themselves and/or others are bound to be found out. With the prevalence of cell phones, images that can destroy a person's career can go viral on the Internet, and it's all over.
More important than self-destructive images are the investigatory aspects of the Net.  am pround to have played a small role in the graphic proof that Dan Rather's anti-Bush documents were fakes. That destroyed Rather's career at CBS. However, like a broadcasting vampire, he seeks to rise again from a different, obscure, media coffin.
The point is that no one can escape his or her past. In the old-fashioned world, it was the research into public documents that exposed people, when they got too high and provoked greater examination. Geraldine Ferraro as a Member of Congress did not attract that level of attention. As a Vice Presidential candidate, she did. Therefore, the convictions of her husband as a slum lord and the drug involvements of her son in college became news.
Today, the universe that can be searched for negative information is infinitely larger. The negative information is not mere words, it is critical people caught saying destructive words, which they thought at the time would only be heard by the favorable audience then in front of them. Consider Van Jones, unceremoniously dumped out of the Obama administration, for remarks he made which revealed his died-in-the-wool hatred of the basic premises of American government and society.
The electronic conscience is neither as strict, nor as effective, as the internal mother of a real conscience. But within its ambit, it is just as inexorable. Any individual who has done or said intolerably bad things will be found out. Video evidence which proves the point will be found, will be circulated on the Net, and will be forced into the mainstream media, whether they like it or not.
This electronic conscience applies both to individuals in positions of power and to those who surround them and are part of their power. The new means of communications were critical to the initial success of the 2008 elections. Now, those means are playing a critical role in bringing down the popularity of the Obama administration, the acceptance of its programs, and the electoral fate of those who support the White House in Congress and elsewhere.
No wonder the administration is seeking to shut down free expression on the Net. It recognizes that flocks of electronic chickens are coming home to roost. Past errors cannot be undone. They will be revealed. And that, as Momma said, will be that. Contributing Editor John Armor practiced law in the Supreme Court for 33 years. His latest book about Thomas Paine is available at Contact him at

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