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Russell Wangersky: If only we could play nice

Subway riders attempt to use an interactive art installation at the new Pioneer Village subway station, in Toronto, Jan. 3, 2018. — CP file photo
Subway riders attempt to use an interactive art installation at the new Pioneer Village subway station, in Toronto, Jan. 3, 2018. — CP file photo

Every now and then, I read something that makes me smack my own face in disbelief.

All they had to do is read an unmoderated comments section in any newspaper, or maybe browse through Twitter for a half an hour or so.

But no.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) spent $1.9 million on an interactive art installation at the Pioneer Village subway extension. Art installations are a fine thing, and well worth investment. But this one, the LightSpell installation, consists of massive overhead light tiles that can spell out a word up to eight letters long. The words can be typed in by commuters from keypads that are set up one level below the light tiles.

In other words, individuals can send an anonymous message and have it printed in huge letters for everyone else to read. (I bet you’ve realized the obvious pitfalls of that already without spending $1.9 million.)

The problem is what that message would be: there are some that the TTC obviously doesn’t want. Words like “fire,” “jump” and “bomb” certainly won’t make things work more smoothly in the subway system. From a safety point of view, though it would be hard to block, typing “you’re” followed by “dead” might be more than a little ominous for riders walking alone through a subway concourse.

But that is really only the beginning: there are any number of hateful and offensive words that can be conjured up in eight characters or less, adding a little overhanging racism to your daily commute.

And it’s not really as simple as building a lexicon of forbidden terms.

Internet poker sites, for example, try to filter out foul language directed by one player at another; all that happens is players who want to insult others insert spaces in the middle of abusive language to allow it to bypass the filters. The words are still infinitely readable.

And the problem with LightSpell: the installation’s creators don’t want to censor people.

We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that, left to their own devices, people can be counted on to play nice. They can’t. Hate and greed and jealousy worms its way through too many people among us.

One of the designers told the Toronto Star, “…in general, the spirit of the installation is still to be an open installation that allows (it) to be uncensored. But we’re looking into details of that and discussing with the TTC.”

Solving the problem, apparently, will be an independent panel that will review words being posted, with a view to removing those that offend community standards. (In the comments business, we call that “moderators,” or the less-frequently used “barometers of human biliousness.”)

But maybe the best solution would be to simply leave the entire piece turned off, as a demonstration that there are a good number of us who, after you scratch off the surface veneer of niceness, have punky, rotten cores.

We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that, left to their own devices, people can be counted on to play nice. They can’t. Hate and greed and jealousy worms its way through too many people among us.

The nature of humankind, philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued, is nasty, brutish and short, especially when left to its own devices without any form of social compact.

So, inevitably, the messages that would appear on the LightSpell installation would be nasty and brutish and, at eight letters or less, at least short.

Good luck with all that, folks. I predict that if LightSpell ever gets turned on, it will go dark again quickly.

There are people who will spend days or weeks trying to find ways to winkle hate speech into public view.

So leave it off — or just program it to send a series of words.

Maybe words like: “This…is…why…we…can’t…have…nice…things.”

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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