Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cyberspace Anonymity: Good or Bad?

If you have been reading this blog for more than a few weeks, you may have noticed that I recently pulled off my mask of anonymity and posted my full name and location on it. That was a choice I made, and most choices have moral implications, if you look far enough. The internet offers abundant opportunities to those who wish to remain anonymous for whatever reason. Since the way it is engineered has contributed to this state of affairs, we are still in the realm of engineering ethics when we consider the implications of cyberspace anonymity.

In the last few days, I have been corresponding with a person halfway around the world, in Australia, about a laptop computer problem. He (I assume it's a he, although I might be wrong) and I have never met and will in all likelihood never meet in this life. But he's had the kindness to take note of my plea for help on a user's forum, and for the last three or four days we've each been posting a remark a day, me asking questions, him giving advice. I notice he usually posts around four in the afternoon his time, which is just a bit before I'll get on around six in the morning in Texas. So although the sun set decades ago on the British Empire, the sun never sets on this spontaneous two-person computer consulting organization, at least as long as it lasts. So far, I've found this to be a good and helpful interchange.

One of the issues he's helping me with is computer viruses. They are another product of the anonymity the Internet provides. As I've remarked elsewhere, many computer hackers don't view the theft of software (or the theft by virus and worm vandalism of other people's time and resources) in the same light that they'd view the act of walking into a convenience store and heisting a loaf of bread. One reason for that is you're much more likely to get caught with bread under your coat than you are to be caught with illegal software, mainly because transactions over the Internet are usually anonymous unless you go to the trouble to advertise who you are. If by some magic, the writers of viruses, worms, and all the other plague carriers of computerdom were brought into the same room with their victims, you'd need a plenty big room, for one thing. Some of the perpetrators might be shamed into confessing, but others might just brazen it out like juvenile delinquents everywhere, and deny it all. At the very least, though, the victims would have the perverse satisfaction of seeing the person who messed up their computer. If this kind of encounter happened on a regular basis, the number of virus-writers would probably decline, but not die out entirely. Unfortunately, I don't have that particular magic trick in my bag.

What you think about the anonymity of cyberspace depends on what you think about humanity. The (relatively few) hard-core materialists among us cannot make a principled distinction between the silicon-and-aluminum machines on which the meat machines communicate, and the meat machines themselves. It's all bits anyway, and so whether one meat machine "knows" who another meat machine is, doesn't really matter except for routine pragmatic reasons, which are the only kind of reasons there are. Those of us who see something unique and distinct about humanity also see something unique and distinct about one person getting to know another, and even about names themselves. In the Hebrew Bible, the knowledge of a person's name conveyed an almost magical power. At the burning bush, Moses asked God, ". . . when I come unto the children of Israel. . . and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." The fact that God told Moses His Name was the sign of a special relationship. And so it should be between people as well.

It doesn't particularly bother me that I don't know Mr. (or Ms.) Australia's name. Long before computers came along, people in cities got used to being served by employees whose names they didn't know. That may not be a good thing in itself, but if it's a moral wrong not to call a salesperson by name, it's one millions commit every day. Normal life for centuries has brought with it various degrees of interaction, from the most casual one-time encounter to the most exalted lifelong friendships and marriages. A life in which each of us knew the most intimate details of the lives of all our acquaintances would be like living on a small desert island with other castaways. We have unfortunately been exposed to the real-life consequences of that kind of life on reality-show TV, and it's obviously got its problems. On the other hand, a life lived with no marriage partner, no close friends, and no one who calls you by your first name would fall short of what most people consider a reasonably fulfilled existence.

Should we throw up our hands and say that cyberspace anonymity is neutral? Absolutely not. It depends on how it's used. If anonymity encourages otherwise shy people to risk more in the way of human encounters, then it may be a benefit. If a criminal uses it the same way he'd use a mask, then it's wrong. Anonymous criticism, hate mail, letters, and email are likewise wrong, or at least cowardly, although there may be extenuating circumstances, such as when whistleblowers fearing for their jobs expose corruption and wrongdoing anonymously on hotlines. And I include most spam in that category.

We can hide behind the masks we don online because we're having fun, or helping each other, or considering a more serious relationship, or trying to make a buck, or plotting to kill. If the Internet had been set up to be totally transparent—everyone knowing the identity of everyone else—it would be a very different place, and probably closer to that global village that Marshall McLuhan talked about. But probably our interactions on it would be very different too. And I might not have gotten any help for my computer problem—at least, not from Australia.

Sources: The Canadian social theorist and media critic Marshall McLuhan did indeed coin the phrase "global village," according to his son Eric, who writes about its origins at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/mcluhan-studies/v1_iss2/1_2art2.htm.

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