Googling for madness
It wasn’t Christian fanaticism or right-wing fanaticism or even anti-Muslim fanaticism that drove Anders Behring Breivik, the man who slaughtered about 90 people in Norway on last Friday, into madness. It was Google.
Hungry for explanations why the 32-year-old detonated a fertilizer bomb that left eight dead in the heart of Olso and then shot dead about 70 more at a youth camp run by the Norwegian Labour Party on a nearby island, the media have been trawling through a 1500-page document that Breivik posted to his Facebook friends before his killing spree. He titled it “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence”.
It was a clever publicity stunt. Now his bizarre theories about the dominance of cultural Marxism, the failure of multiculturalism and the invasion of Islam are flying around the internet. He even created an FAQ about his personal life and program, including questions about his favourite beer, films and eau de cologne.
How much of this is true will require the nimble literary skills of a French deconstructionist. In fact, at one point, he has inserted a long disclaimer declaring that the book is “fiction”:
“all incriminatory information in this work is written ‘in character’ and must not be confused with an actual plan, or strategy to attempt to harm any individuals or infrastructure, any political groups or attempt to seize political or military control of Western European regimes.”Unhappily, the “fictional” horrors calmly mapped out in the document were turned into fact.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. This calamity has been used to vindicate condemnations of right-wing politicians, opposition to Muslim migration and Christianity. But triumphantly plucking damning quotes from his 1500-page rubbish heap proves nothing.
Breivik was utterly inconsistent. He describes himself as a Christian, a Freemason and an Odinist (a revival of Scandinavian paganism). The two figures he most admires are Vladimir Putin and Benedict XVI. He budgets for an orgy with prostitutes to be arranged “just before or after I attend my final martyrs’ mass in Frogner Church.”
He speaks with the gravitas of both a theologian and a new atheist: “As for the Church and science, it is essential that science takes an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings. Europe has always been the cradle of science and it must always continue to be that way.” He rails against the destruction of family values and wants to implement a one-child policy in the developing world to save the environment.
The document has a hyperlinked table of contents with chapter headings and footnotes – all the paraphernalia of a scholarly article. But most of the material appears to have been copied and pasted from blogs and websites. Great slabs of the Unabomber’s manifesto are incorporated into the text without attribution. Whole chapters were taken from the anonymous Norwegian blogger Fjordman. The introductory chapter reproduces a pamphlet on political correctness by the Free Congress Foundation, an American think tank.
It has all been compiled with Wikipedia’s air of no-nonsense academic detachment, from its analysis of Muslim demography to description of how to purchase weapons for a mass murder.
In short, it is a 778,257-word demonstration that Google not only capable of making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr argued in a famous article in Atlantic three years ago, but violent and full of hate.
“What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking," Carr wrote later.
Evidence of that lies on the shores of Utøya island. What the document reveals is a personality which has been shaped by years of solitary engagement with the internet, a hollow shell filled to bursting with the trivia of millions of internet pageviews. At one point, he says, he spent “thousands of hours” trawling through Facebook trying to promote his cause. He prepared for the climactic day by playing the video game “World of Warcraft – Cataclysm”.
Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, once predicted that “Providing universal access to information will allow [poor] people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world." This seems overly optimistic. Something more than information is needed.
For some people the vastness of the internet can be deadly. Critical thinking and making optimum sense of confusing data about how the world works requires a fully integrated personality. Breivik lacked that. He allowed himself to be absorbed into the Web, his intelligence fading away to become just a node in the internet.
It is within the warmth of a family that most people absorbs a world view that makes the world coherent and orderly. Breivik never had one. His father, Jens Breivik, left when he was one and failed to get custody. For him it was the second of three marriages. His mother also had three partners. There were various half and step siblings floating around.
Who Breivik really is, what he really feels, is a mystery. But there is a revealing sentence about men who conform to contemporary Norwegian values:
“Most people going that road realise at one point in life that it’s a pretty shallow existence. They long for something better but are trapped by the unofficial ‘rules of the game’ propagated through every aspect of society. At that point you are 30-40 years + without a family, without children.”Anders Behring Breivik, in other words.
Surfing the internet gives you facts, not values to live by. You can only learn morality and self-knowledge through commitment and engagement with other people, not by googling. At a time when families are falling apart and many children are growing up without engagement with their parents, how many more Breiviks are out there? Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
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