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In 1949, novelist George Orwell wrote of an electronic future and a watchful eye called Big Brother. Sixty years later, parts of the author's sci-fi vision are more fact than fiction. And the Internet could easily be thought of as the modern, data-gathering Big Brother where the details of our lives are collected and pored over by a very impassioned group of observers. But our salivating watchdog isn't a totalitarian government. It's us.

We lay ourselves open to examination by global neighbors when we upload digital pics and videos. Then we share our most intimate secrets on social networks. And 24-7, we blog and opine on every subject known to man—from the latest celebutant rehab to how the guy next door fails to clean up after his dog.

On the positive side, this means an endless library of images and information at our fingertips. Communication with friends and family anywhere in the world is instantaneous. And virtual entertainment of any stripe is only a mouse click away. In fact, video sharing sites such as YouTube have become so entertaining for some viewers that they've replaced other prime-time diversions and made stars out of the kids down the street.

This can be a powerful motivator for people playing to a camera. It may even inspire us to make better choices. A New Jersey Dunkin' Donuts clerk named Dustin, for instance, was motivated by Big Brother's eye to become heroic and fight off a thief. "What was going through my mind at that point was that the security tape is either going to show me run away and hide in the office or whack this guy in the head," he said. "There are only a few videos like that on YouTube now, so mine is going to be the best."

Yep, our version of Mr. Orwell's watchdog machine is more expansive and efficiently powerful than the author ever could have imagined. Of course, that power can just as easily turn into a destructive cultural whirlwind.

Consider Canadian teen Ghyslain Raza, who on a lark filmed himself acting out a fight scene from the movie Star Wars. The chubby, awkward youth never intended the tape for public consumption, but when a classmate discovered it and posted it on the Web, it became an overnight sensation watched by millions. Entire Web sites were dedicated to this clip. It seems everyone found it hilarious. Except for Ghyslain, that is. Dubbed "The Star Wars Kid," Ghyslain has endured every teen's worst fear: public humiliation.

Embarrassment, however, can be the least of a person's worries when foolish or malicious choices are involved. Take the sad case of Lori Drew and Megan Meier. Lori, a middle-aged mom, thought her daughter had been slighted by 13-year-old Megan, so she created a phony MySpace profile as a cute teen boy named Josh. Over the next six weeks "Josh" coaxed Megan into sharing intimate thoughts about school, parents and sex. One day Lori's creation turned mean and heaped verbal abuse on the confused 13-year-old, eventually posting all of Megan's deepest secrets where her schoolmates could read them. Which they did. They gossiped online. They called Megan names. Unable to bear it any longer, Megan committed suicide.

As cruelly tragic as that particular tale is, things didn't end there. A woman named Sarah read an account of the deadly hoax and, enraged, went about uncovering Lori's full name and posting it on her personal blog. Other bloggers followed suit. Lori soon found her home address, personal pictures, phone numbers, business information and even the names and phone numbers of her clients spread across the Web. People staged protests outside the woman's home. Clients bolted. The business failed. There were calls for violence—including death threats—against the family.

Meanwhile, Sarah, who outed Lori for her deadly online folly, was called a vigilante by another blogger who promptly tossed her pictures, address and phone numbers onto the gossip-hungry Web. Where does it all end? Who has the authority to step in and put a stop to this sort of viral harassment? And if such an authority existed, would that move us one step closer to the type of Big Brother Orwell warned us about?

The high-speed, high-tech marvel that brings us together can also be a tool that tears us apart. But don't blame the Internet. Just as in Orwell's vision of the future, it's sinful people behind the scenes who are at fault. No matter how technologies may change, human nature remains the same. We're fallen. And given to rash decisions that yield unintended consequences, we have a way of taking others down with us.

The people I've mentioned may have thought they were doing the "just" thing. But man's justice can easily become twisted. Galatians 5:19-21 tells us that the sinful deeds of our flesh—such as strife, jealousy, angry outbursts, dissension and envy—are always evident and will separate us from God's holy desire for us. That's true, both online and off.

The future holds even more incredible technological advances and challenges. It's possible that we've yet to see the best or worst from machines … not to mention those of us pushing the buttons. Help children weigh their words and be careful what they post in cyberspace. And keep an eye on our modern day Big Brother. Because it will most certainly be watching us.

Published April 2008

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