Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Man in the State of Anonymity

In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes imagines what life would be like "in the state of nature". He famously concludes that life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" on account of the natural state of man being war. Hobbes writes, "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man"

Anoymity is False Freedom

Hobbes falls victim, I believe, to an error common to all such gendankenexperiments. He ignores that the current state of affairs is the result of a complex evolution. He takes a system with effectively infinite influences and arbitrarily removes some things and retains others.

Does this make his thought experiment useless? I don't think so, but I do think it wasn't useful for the purpose he intended. It wasn't "man in a state of nature" but "man removed from civil society". What Hobbes characterized, it would seem with great accuracy, is what happens when you take a person out of the constraints of western civil society.

Hobbes saw that people in our society are dependent upon the constraints placed on them by custom and law. These provide a buffer against bad action. They are something to push against when pursuing self-interest, which, in our society is held to be not only acceptable but even meritorious.

So, when you remove the barriers people use as ethical dams, what happens? The pushing changes to motion, and they cross the line. Perhaps timidly at first but more boldly as they grow used to the lack of enforced restraint. After all, custom and law are so intimately conflated with ethical responsibility, if they are not there, concern over ethics also vanishes.

Hobbes vision of life without civil society is not very pleasant. Unfortunately, we have some empirical evidence of his correctness in front of us today. We've performed this experiment, in vivo, thanks to the possibility of anonymity provided by the Internet.

The phenomenon of anonymous social interaction on the Internet is very familiar to anyone that uses the net to communicate with others in public forums. The ability to post comments, articles, photos and the like, while remaining anonymous leads to a great deal of surprisingly brutal behavior. People say and do things they would never do if their identity was known. Why?

The answer is reputation. If I can identify you I will associate what you do with a particular person, and that's how a reputation is built. Anonymity in these cases is a socially corrosive force. It drives discourse and society to the lowest levels. One anonymous poster, if allowed to, can destroy a conversation or even a community. If not alone, by provoking others to resort to anonymity in response.

Anonymity, per se, is not bad. In fact, in the political arena it can allow for a kind of righteous activism not possible otherwise. However, its value in one domain doesn't excuse its damaging application in another. I cannot not see any value in allowing anonymous posting to community forums. There's no value to the community. There's no reason for it.

If you want to argue "privacy" as a reason to allow it, you've confused two distinct things. Privacy and anonymity are not identical. Privacy means that other than my persistent identity I only need reveal what the community considers normative. Over time, I will have a reputation, so my friends will know me. I have an identity and a reputation to protect. On the other hand, anonymity means that I have no persistent identity and my behavior has no long-term consequences for me.

Privacy is a good thing. It protects us from people we don't invite into our lives. It allows us to create an identity and develop friendships and communities without feeling at risk. Anonymity, on the other hand, is a corrosive social force. It gives people a way to bypass custom and law. It creates an environment where truly vile behavior is acceptable. It will, I fear, eventually drive the general social environment lower and lower.

Young people growing up in a rich social environment where ethical behavior is optional will eventually forget why it was ever desirable. Our western civil society needs to evolve, now, towards self-restraint and introspective limits. We have to stop depending on shame and social pressure as the only barriers to anti-social behavior before "anti-social" no longer makes sense and we live in a dystopic mess.



Anonymous Kiran said...

Well done.

Mon Nov 01, 12:02:00 AM EDT  

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