commentary Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, leaped off the George Washington Bridge last week, apparently committing suicide after learning that his college roommate had video recorded him during a sexual encounter with another man, according to The New York Times.
Because much of the tragedy has played out online and because a computer cam was used to do the recording, some critics are now warning the public of apocalyptic consequences involved with social networking and technology.
"This 'stunt' isn't just a college prank gone bad," wrote Dr. Keith Ablow, for Foxnews.com. "It is evidence of the dehumanizing effects that technology is having on young people."
The way Ablow sees it, technology is the invisible hand that guided the people who sneakily taped Clementi as he reportedly kissed another man, and as they tried to share the images with others. Ablow's thesis would be easier to believe if there weren't so many examples of low-tech acts of homophobia and bullying producing the same devastating results.
For some reason, we've seen a lot of myth making involving technology lately: Craigslist is a digital brothel that promotes prostitution. MySpace and YouTube are dangerous digital back alleys where children are cyberbullied. Years ago, the film industry compared VHS machines with the Boston Strangler.
Scary sounding indeed, but the truth is people don't need gadgets or the Internet to commit crime or acts of cruelty.
The events leading up to Clementi's death reportedly began this way: On September 19, Dharun Ravi activated his computer camera remotely and secretly recorded Clementi, his roommate, while he was kissing another man in their dorm room, according to the Times. Ravi and possibly others saw the images. Ravi told police he recorded Clementi by accident, the Times reported.
Days later, however, Ravi posted another Twitter message that appears to signal another attempt to covertly record Clementi.
"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12," Ravi allegedly wrote. "Yes, it's happening again."
Ravi, 18, and another student, Molly Wei, 18, have been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for using "the camera to view and transmit a live image" of Clementi, according to the Times. The most serious charge could bring a five-year prison sentence.
Ablow said that he doubts Ravi and Wei are murderers at heart. "That's what technology does to people, though," Ablow wrote. "Working from behind a camera and sending images into cyberspace now removes the human face from the actions of many, many people."
Ablow also suggests that Clementi's use of Facebook contributed to his death. "Even the victim in this case seems to have been teetering on the brink of real life and Facebook life, where he tragically sent to a host of false "friends," his last intention on this good earth."
Some of those "false friends" as Ablow calls them tried to save Clementi's life. According to Kashmir Hill from Forbes.com, Clementi reached out for help using an online message forum dedicated to the gay community. Ablow overlooks the part the Web played in connecting people who wanted to help Clementi.
Some of the people at the forum encouraged Clementi to report Ravi to school authorities, to move out of the room, and to protect himself from further spying.
Sadly these attempts didn't save Clementi. But when it comes to who or what bears responsibility for his death, computers and social networks are far behind the callous people who recorded him and Clementi himself.