Tuesday, February 21, 2006

cyber ethics

there is one aspect of the read/write web that is underdeveloped and not talked about much: while those technologies that empower people to publish anything that can be translated into 1s and 0s are booming, there are not many mechanisms for, is not much discussion about, and not much averseness of what is called cyber ethics.


the web brings some kind of anonymity - it's a virtual world consisting of megacities and towns, single houses and endless free space - moving around happens at the speed of your mouse click. in the old web world you just visited sites - now you build them. consumers turn into makers. it's the democratisation of the web, the media and much more: it is also changing the world we live in - real and virtual worlds are being connected more and more, changes in one world have consequences in another. just like in one of those classic science-fiction or fantasy stories.


as long as the web was just for consuming information, anonymity (let's just assume for now that it exists) was welcome by most people. now that users create their own content, help building whole websites, are interacting on all sorts of levels with one another, anonymity is not just an advantage: it can also be a problem.

technologies are being developed to solve some of the problems connected to anonymity - it's all still new and for the most part they seem to have one aim: to turn an anonymous user into a trusted customer - maybe even into a trusted user with certain privileges, but it's done in a businesslike way - this is good for online business, but it might not solve other problems that anonymity can bring.


the problem we are facing has to do do with the fact that we transcend to a new, virtual world that gives us incredible powers, and while we learn fast how to use those powers, we might not learn at all how we should use them. we are like a sorcerer's apprentice. we lack responsibility.


there are experiments that show that people are willing to punish, even kill other people, if there is a) an authority that tells them to do it b) if there is anonymity. off course this knowledge always existed: churches and armies always knew how to make people do what they wanted by providing a) the authority b) taking away individuality, creating the anonymous member, the good believer, the good soldier.

since religion and war have a long and sad tradition in human history, we seem to have a problem with individuality. we create heroes, villains, stars and kings so that we have at least an image of an individual that we would like to be. a lot of wishes and desires may remain unfulfilled and people tend to give up fighting for their dreams and become just another good member of whatever church or army or society.

this might look as "how it has to be when you grow older", something you "just have to accept", but then, time and again, almost anywhere in the word, we can see where this frustration, this unfulfillment leads to, we see it being used by those leaders of churches or armies or states: it always starts with books burning and ends with bombs falling - always for the right cause.

and this is only possible because individuality is being taken away from people. because people are not taught to think for themselves. and if there is no individuality, there is no individual responsibility. you are only an anonymous member of a church, an army, a state - or a user, surfing the web...

the new web

with our history of not caring too much for our individuality, we enter the web, first the old one, where we only consumed, and now the new one, web 2.0.

maybe we now have this incredible opportunity to really develop individuality, take responsibility and therefore overcome our sad history of wars of all sorts. but: the technologies themselves don't offer much help with it at this point. people try out stuff, create accounts and email addresses, look at different platforms and services... it's a bit like a game. and this is good for learning. the problems come in when the game is not funny any more for all people involved: then you have cyberbullys, anonymous users insulting each other or worse: a group of people putting down a single user, maybe putting pressure on an individual for whatever reason with whatever aim. and since people identify with their virtual personas, this can be a very frightening and maybe even harmful experience. again this is happening because people: a) tell each other what to do (instead of thinking for themselves) b) because they are anonymous.


the solution is not to get rid of anonymity. this would probably not only be impossible to do, it would also not be desirable: we don't want big brother watching every step of our lives. the solution will only partly be a technical one, we probably need some kind of social system, some kind of ethical codex, some kind of independent movement or group of people who just speak up when necessary. anyone can do that. it's just like when you sit in a bus and someone verbally or physically attacks another passenger: do you look away or do you help...? the problem we have online is that it is so much easier to look away because you don't have to look in anyone's eyes. still people can get hurt.

so if we develop individual online personas that take responsibility, than we can still have anonymity. but the technologies that empower us today don't teach us how to do that. and programmers are often not the most social human beings, they might not think of certain implications that a software has on a non-technical level.

cyber ethics is about respecting others just as we do in real life, but it might take more than another new technology to further develop this.

we are still humans when online: we still hurt or get hurt - it just happens quicker - and is much harder to see.


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