As the price of technology drops, the barriers to entry for the markets they represent do as well. The blogosphere provides an excellent example of this dynamic. The cost to publish has become almost non-existent, and now millions of people (including me) have created their own on-line publications. BlogTalkRadio allows anyone with a phone line and an Internet connection to become a talk-radio host on any topic — and we have thousands of hosts in the network with almost as many topics. Self-publication has grown into a mass movement, a revolution in how information gets disseminated and absorbed.
This dynamic has a darker side, too. As the price drops on video technology and publication, a strange new phenomenon has arisen — the need for people to put themselves on display in the most extreme moments of their lives. A certain class of narcissistic deviants have been unable to commit their acts without photographing and videotaping them for publication:
There was the recent arrest in Nevada of Chester Stiles, who allegedly filmed himself raping a three-year-old girl. This sensational item overlapped with the capture in Thailand of Christopher Paul Neil, a Canadian schoolteacher accused of posting on the Internet images of himself having sex with a series of children. Neither would in all likelihood have been jailed so quickly had they not photographed themselves performing these atrocities. Both Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who shot eight people in a Finnish high school on Nov. 7, and Cho Seung Hui, murderer of 32 at Virginia Tech this April, made confessional videos for broadcast or posting online–so called massacre manifestos–designed to outlive their suicides.
A partial list of others happy or compelled to document their own crimes in recent years would include the young arsonist in California who took pictures of himself against the background of the infernos he set. Or the Canadian joy-riders who cruised around Vancouver at night, shooting frightened pedestrians with paint-ball guns while recording themselves whooping it up during these escapades. Or Sean Gillespie, a neo-Nazi who videotaped himself in 2004 firebombing an Oklahoma City synagogue as part of his racist promotional package. Or the three teenagers arrested last year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for clubbing with baseball bats three homeless men, one of them to death, events the boys commemorated by making a video.
The guards at Abu Ghraib also participated in this trend. Their abuse and torture of Iraqis might have remained whispered rumors within the prison walls had they not taken pictures for their own amusement. The members of al Qaeda who beheaded Western journalists and aid workers are a subset as well. They staged these murders for the cameras in hopes the group’s ruthlessness would be broadcast to viewers everywhere. Like the lead character in “Peeping Tom,” they took pleasure in filming and watching playbacks of their own cruelty.
Richard Woodward also notes the rise of amateur porn offered freely on the Internet, but a rich tradition exists in utilizing the latest imaging technology to capture the sex act. Even before the computer age, pornography managed to find its way onto cellulose or tintypes early in the life cycle of the specific technologies. Porn got a big boost in videocassettes and DVDs, as well as with the computer industry. The change now is that so many just post their intimate moments for no charge at all — and the low barrier finally represents a threat to the porn industry. No one needs a prostitute when someone else gives it away for free.
The rest of the article, however, does put a certain new twist on image technology. In these cases and many more, criminals seem compelled to provide startling and repellent evidence of their actions. A few years ago, we would shake our heads in wonder at the idiocy of teenagers taping the random beating of a man. Why would someone keep evidence that would convict them if arrested?
Criminals don’t just keep the videos any longer — they proudly publish them, sometimes just to a circle of friends, but sometimes to the wider audience. It makes deviancy almost a currency, a hierarchy of double-dog-dares that one usually outgrows sometime in middle school. Woodward believes that the contributors to this market believe that the public scorn and potential risk of arrest gets outweighed by the thrill of looking back at oneself, but that’s not the real thrill — the real thrill is believing that thousands or millions of people are looking at oneself. Self-made celebrity outweighs all.
It’s the age of narcissistic deviancy, and the Internet is the perfect marketplace. I suspect that this impulse has existed all along, but with the almost-nonexistent barrier to entry, that impulse will get full vent.