Social Lasers of Cruelty

Jaron Lanier, a kind of web reverse-guru, perhaps the Anti-Shirky, talks to Smithsonian magazine about what he sees as the existential threat of Internet anonymity.

“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”

“Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat.

“I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam….Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”

[ . . . ]

We read of online bullying leading to teen suicides in the United States and, in China, there are reports of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs forming…digital Maoism.

He gives me one detail about what happened to his father’s family in Russia. “One of [my father’s] aunts was unable to speak because she had survived the pogrom by remaining absolutely mute while her sister was killed by sword in front of her [while she hid] under a bed. She was never able to speak again.”

It’s a haunting image of speechlessness. A pogrom is carried out by a “crowd,” the true horrific embodiment of the purported “wisdom of the crowd.” You could say it made Lanier even more determined not to remain mute. To speak out against the digital barbarism he regrets he helped create.

I think Lanier is maybe a bit too in love with his own novelty, the web pioneer who now hates the web, and takes some of this to an unnecessary extreme, but I take his point. If there's anything about the web, and blogs particularly, that I find loathsome, it's comment sections and bulletin board sites that traffic in anonymous anger and hate-spewing. Frankly, I was a little afraid to come to Freethought Blogs because I know how tumultuous a lot of the commentaries can get (so far, most of you have been lovely).

I'd never be one to say that folks should not be allowed to be anonymous online. Far from it. But I do think there's a lot of merit in the individual sites and blogs deciding that for their own plot of Internet real estate, folks have to go by their real names in order to play. That probably doesn't work for, say, YouTube, but for a given publication or service, I can definitely see why that would be preferable — a declaration that at such-and-such a site, you stand by your words with your real identity. And if you don't want to play by that rule, you can simply not participate in that site, or respond on your own blog or platform outside of that site, as anonymously as you want.

That doesn't solve what Lanier fears, of course, but at this point, what could?

6 thoughts on “Social Lasers of Cruelty”

  1. I know the question was probably rhetorical, but could there be a sort of certified pseudonymity program, for instance, one where you have to use your real identity to create a pseudonym with a service, which would have a set of standards to which you agree, and with certain rules by which you must abide or lose your virtual identity/be outed/other consequences? We’re already doing a little of that here – I signed in with my Google account, although I suspect I could have used a false name to create that account. If enough people complained of me to Google for an extreme enough infraction, especially if Google could verify that I was really guilty, they would limit the services which I could access or inform bricks-and-mortar authorities.
    In an extension of such a pseudonymity service, people would agree to a certain level of policing for a certain code of conduct, and different sites specify what level you have to agree to in order to comment. You’d start with some of the more common commenting rules and add more unusual rules as you could trust a large body to judge them with the training it’s possible to provide, including an appeal system. You might have to demonstrate that you can follow rules, perhaps even under extreme provocation. There might be a networked system of reputation, whereby people with a good reputation who don’t abuse the system have a vote that counts for more.
    How many people would be needed to do the policing, how much would you have to pay to keep the service going, and would it be worth it?


  2. The problem with pseudonymity is that you need to trust the person that knows your real name. Given that this “person” is useless a corporation, probably with a history of selling that sort of information for advertising purposes, it’s tricky.
    There are many reasonable justifications for anonymity. I live in Australia so most people couldn’t care less that (eg) I’m an atheist, but there are certainly countries where that sort of thing can be dangerous (or at least socially awkward) if it becomes public knowledge. Ideally I’d prefer that my hobbies were not easily deducible by a few Google searches by, say, my work mates or potential employers (there’s nothing illegal there, but all it takes is some idiot with a grudge against Dungeons and Dragons players or something). The same reason I close the curtains when I’m walking about the house naked – I’d rather not be embarrassed, it’s not because I’m doing anything nasty or illegal.
    It is unfortunately true however that in a forum where anonymity is allowed, some people will occasionally choose to use that anonymity to troll, or hurl abuse, or otherwise act unpleasantly. Must we throw out the baby with the bathwater?
    Perhaps the best solution is a pseudonymous mechanism that cannot be uncovered, but is still verifiable. The mathematics for that exists. There may be a potential service there; sign up with a mechanism that uniquely identifies you (credit card number, tax file number, social security number, driver’s licence number – whatever seems fair), hashes the lot and issues you a signed token. The service doesn’t know who you are, it just knows that you’re valid. Somebody misuses the service, you just ban that token (and if they want a new token, they’ll have to find a way to forge credentials – but that’s true in the meat world too). You can throw in some public key cryptography to prevent impersonation.
    Then all you have to do is work out how to encourage widespread adoption so that it isn’t easy to just firewall your service and force dissidents out into the open. As with most technical problems, the social issues are the tricky ones.


  3. But nobody cares about anonymity when the Anons attack Scientology. Anonymity is a force that can be used for good or evil. Just because we have seen so much of the evil it has done within our own community, we should never forget its power to do good.


  4. People have never needed anonymity to form mobs before (pogroms? the Cultural Revolution? they didn’t feel the need to hide their identities) – I don’t see why the internet should automatically change this. A lot of people bully others on Facebook using their real names. It’s all about group dynamics: if they feel they have the rest of their group backing them, they won’t be stopped by the fact that they have to use their real name.


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