The Internet can be a sinister place. On the one hand, it is an invaluable resource for anyone doing research or fact-checking; what used to involve a lengthy search through printed sources can now be accomplished in a matter of seconds using any number of search engines. On the other hand, the most innocent search criteria can take you to some pretty questionable sites.
The other day I was looking up the lyrics to a song I remembered from my youth: “Carry On” by Stephen Stills, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It’s an upbeat number about carrying on in spite of losses and setbacks. It was released on the album Déjà vu in 1970. I own the record, but it’s no good to me because turntables became obsolete years ago and I no longer own one.
I remembered one line from the song: “Girl, when I was on my own.” I entered it in Google, and in less than a second the search engine had provided an exhaustive list of possible matches. Among these, on the first screen to come up, were sites devoted to naked girls and various forms of erotica, including one site urging me to explore the digital offerings of someone described as a “gay nude gamer.”
Google, in its wisdom, had focused on the word “girl” in my search criteria, relegating everything else to secondary status. I realized that I would have to be more specific, so I added the name of the group and searched again. This time I found not only the lyrics, but recordings of the song on YouTube. I listened to the intricate harmonies and guitar work characteristic of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and was surprised and pleased to find that it was as good as I remembered it.
I am familiar enough with the Internet to know that a vast proportion of it is devoted to pornography, and it is a rare search that doesn’t turn up something salacious. Usually these sites give themselves away by their titles, but it’s easy to avoid them if you know what to expect.
Or so I thought.
It was evening and I was in pyjamas, ready to turn out the light once I had finished a few minor tasks. I had never paid much attention to the built-in camera on my laptop, much less considered the possibility that someone could hijack it. But that seems to have been what happened. When I exited the Internet, I saw a man staring back at me out of the computer screen.
I was surprised into motionlessness. When I finally moved, the image moved with me. I got up and walked away; so did the figure on the screen. It could only have been a matter of seconds, but it seemed a long time before I recognized myself as the man on the screen. I turned off the computer and the man disappeared. I was a little unsettled.
“You got hacked, Dad,” said my daughter Brigid when I told her.
Someone had been observing me in real time as I worked. Watching an editor edit must be as exciting as listening to paint dry, I thought, and tried to imagine a life so barren that hacking a man’s laptop and watching him work in his pyjamas is considered entertainment. I suspect that whoever was watching me was hoping to see something more. However pointless the exercise, it was an invasion of my privacy, and I resented it. Brigid advised me to cover the camera lens with a sticky note.
We all have secret places that we don’t want anyone to see: memories that haunt us, feelings that betray us, things we have done that we wish we could undo. Most of us have seen the best and the worst of ourselves in our own conscience, and we have done our best to reconcile our very human nature with the intentions of the divine. It is in many ways a hopeful task, but if a simple thing like looking up the lyrics to an old song can lead us into a place where the chief values are lust and greed, it’s time to re-examine the value of the Internet.