The concept of "seven deadly sins" dates back to the work of 4th-century monk Evagrius Ponticus. His initial list had eight—but cooler heads realized in AD 590 that it'd be difficult to work "vainglory" into a compelling Brad Pitt / Morgan Freeman thriller 14 centuries later. Still, the idea that the vices of humanity come in a variety of flavors is not one that's grown less relevant over the years, even as the world around us changes at a faster pace than ever.
In order to understand that relevance to the connected, socially networked age we live in now, the Guardian, Toronto digital creative firm Jam3, and the National Film Board of Canada teamed up to explore the Seven Digital Deadly Sins of today. Tapping thinkers and artists including novelist Gary Shteyngart, English national treasure Bill Bailey, Canadian comic Mary Walsh, and—as the project reveals—compulsive self-Googler and time-waster Billy Bragg, among others, the website they've created combines first-person prose stories and short video documentaries to explore how the seven deadlies apply to digital life. For Bragg, for example, "gluttony" is binging on searching for his own name and YouTube #skateboardfail videos when he should be writing songs. For others, their sins include cyberbullying, keeping secrets from their partners, or trying to score a big Flappy Bird ripoff.
"We were interested in the way that we could categorize and frame our actions," explains Loc Dao, executive producer and creative technologist at the NFB's Digital Studio in Vancouver, when asked why the seven deadly sins appealed to him as the framework for the project. "The Internet, and the social media age, have really changed who we are, and one of the things we wrestled with when we worked on the project is that it’s not like this change ended in 2014—it’s something that’s ongoing. Knowing that we were dealing with this vast change, and this vast potential amount of story, it gave us some comfort in being able to frame it in something that’s been around for thousands of years."
The site features anonymous stories that fit roughly into the sins as outlined—a few paragraphs detailing what it's like to be a member of affair-seeking website AshleyMadison.com, or to have outsourced most of your daily tasks to an online virtual assistant—as well as videos featuring Bragg, Bailey, and the other more famous names involved.
"The people in the films were people who had personal experiences that they wanted to share, but we wanted people who were funny, and accessible—were artists, for the video stories," Dao says. "For the written stories, those were months of the Guardian digging at their sources and finding people who would actually come forward with the stories they were comfortable sharing. In many cases, we had to protect the identity of the people in the written stories, and they had pseudonyms because of their actions. So that was pretty amazing, that we were able to get that range of stories."
Perhaps more interesting than just the presence of the stories, however, is the interactive element. A mass confessional is an interesting project, albeit one with perhaps limited utility. But Dao and the team included participatory components that change the project's scope substantially.
"This isn’t really a story about the Internet if it can’t involve the Internet," he says. "So we allow people to weigh in, in a way that allows them to absolve or condemn an action in that rapid fire way that we do online now, and then they’re asked another question that makes them reflect on that action and whether they’ve done it themselves." Ultimately, Doa explains, the goal is to collect a large amount of data that may have significant implications. "One of the things we’re trying to look at right now is how do people in different cities, different countries try to answer these questions. One of the Guardian researchers we worked with is an author and a PhD in the research/social science area, and she is going to be taking a look at the data as well, to see what opinions we can formulate from this."
Ultimately, though, data on how morality—or the different perceptions thereof—are shifting will only prove useful if it engages people to think about the questions more often. "At the heart of it is that we’ve all committed these sins. That’s part of being human. If we have the chance to reflect on that and grow from that, then we’ve done some good," Dao says.