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Advancing social technology is warping our moral compasses

Heba Yosry

Published: Updated:

A gruesome incident occurred recently on the streets of Al Ismailia governorate in Egypt. A man beheaded his neighbor in broad daylight, injured two other men during the attack and then paraded the decapitated head around the street before authorities captured him. He later confessed to the murder and explained that he was enraged because the deceased had sexually harassed his mother and sister, and he acted in the heat of the moment.

Some people actually voiced support for him, suggesting that when a man’s honor is compromised the gloves come off. Putting that to one side, many bystanders simply didn’t intervene.

Then, on the Philadelphia subway a woman was openly sexually assaulted will bystanders stood back and filmed it on their phones.

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I don't believe that fear was the main motivation for bystanders' inaction, but rather a dissociation from the real world that is losing its appeal, to be better replaced by a designed fantasy.

The first incident was certainly a life-threatening situation and an intervention could have probably jeopardized lives.

Fear wasn’t the only motivator for inaction. If those present were only afraid, they would have fled the scene rather than hold up their cameras and take snaps. I believe these bystanders did care about what was unfolding, but they find themselves in a societal manifestation - not of apathy - but of a deep seated dissociation from reality.

I remember when I was a university student, I had to write an essay on war photographers. I truly admired their work. Their pictures gave nuance and meaning to a narrative that was mostly reduced to good guys versus bad guys. Their work was genuine, sincere, and brave. As I did my research I tried to imagine myself hiding in the trenches with soldiers while the sky was lighting up with fire, but I couldn’t.

I would have run if danger came too close. Given my fear I know that I could never have taken photographs of injured soldiers or of fields filled with human corpses and war debris.

The rise and democratization of technology which allows access to tools for basically everyone to become content creators in some form has produced a level of dissociation from reality. (stock photo)
The rise and democratization of technology which allows access to tools for basically everyone to become content creators in some form has produced a level of dissociation from reality. (stock photo)

It begs the question: if I were a war photographer and someone was injured in front of me would my first instinct be to help or document the unfolding incident?

War photographers face this same moral dilemma. They solve it in two ways.

First, their firm belief is that their role necessitates they document first. Secondly, to be able to fulfill this role they need to dissociate from the reality of the situation. They are witnesses; not active players.

It seems to me that the rise and democratization of technology which allows access to tools for basically everyone to become content creators in some form has produced the same level of dissociation from reality.

There is a limited scope of moral responsibility that war photographers have imposed upon themselves to maintain their ability to do their jobs properly.

It’s different for others. Action, change, involvement became afterthoughts because they aren’t in vogue when everyone is too busy trying to capture the perfect shot that will garner the most likes on social media.

And so we are trying to portray our lives as happy on screen, rather than actually trying to live happily. Every day, we give up the potential of living for the sake of hiding behind a baptized screen that can protect us from actually making choices, or from making mistakes or from finding who we truly are. And again why should we ask ourselves who we are, if we can simply choose various avatars that can have unlimited lives?

These tragic events in Ismailia and Philadelphia, and the bystanders’ reactions are symptoms of a deep crises in society. They tell a cautionary tale of an expanding technological advancement that has pushed the boundaries of moral responsibility and dare I say it, of human life.

I enjoy the use of technology and the facilities that it provides the same as everyone else, but the gadgets that lead to the consistent disembodiment of human beings, and which leads to alienation from ourselves is something we should all be wary of.

The level of moral responsibility is diminishing rapidly as a byproduct of greater technological advancement.

Incidents like these are a symptom of a malaise and attitude in society that fosters indifference and seclusion. This is reinforced by living our lives separated from reality where gadgets, virtual reality and avatars have created a parallel universe. We can create an alternative identity that we carefully craft beyond the challenges of everyday life. There is no need to act responsibly in real life because we can act behind the safety of a screen.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.