Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Masks 1 / Anonymous & Pseudonymous Identification

Another way in which online space conditioned the riot is through its commonplace cultures of anonymity and pseudonymity. There are at least two modes of digital anonymity, and they accord to different visions of political liberty/agency. The same can be said of online pseudonymity. The uptake  of both by millions of users may precede a general/state realization that these gambits amount to actual political tactics/postions. Yet, the spread of such phenomena in the digital sphere  is nevertheless setting  the stage for the offline acts. Or, put otherwise, perhaps the government and commentators have failed to discern the ideological dimension of the riots because their understanding of the relationship between ‘real life’ an online is impoverished. The ideology of the riots is playing out across the two fields and so far the state and corporate media have only been looking for reasons in the latter.  We need a new understanding of political agency that takes into account the liberties enacted online, with a view to understanding how these are being enacted in and affecting real space. Until then, the riots will seem like a waking dream.
Whereas in the previous century anonymity was often seen as an alienating condition that threatened self-worth now the vast majority of us are subscribing to an equation of anonymity with political agency/liberty. Irrespective of ‘political’ realization on the part of individuals, most digitally connected people use and abuse online psuedonymns – ie. filter email accounts, pseudonymous social networks etc. This is a negative form of networked liberty/agency, an attempt at ‘freedom from’ interference which finds its offline parallel to this in masked demonstrators avoiding data capture by cctv cameras (and rioters looting fancy dress shops).
The positive sense of anonymous liberty, the ‘freedom to’ aspect, is now commonplace and spreading: It is illegal filesharing. As a critical mass of people do it the ideology of ‘freedom to’ is perpetuated. Despite its criminal/nonconformist cachet this phenomenon has consumerist undertones – as unfettered gratification of desire for commodities is pursued even above law of the land. The easy anonymity afforded by the internet is not just contributing towards the economic erosion of the entertainment industries, it is creating a much larger class of consuming agents willing to break the law for entertainment purposes.
As Jaron Lanier notes, design underlies ethics in the digital world and ‘People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean’. Crucially, according to him, this is not so much a function of human nature as it is the result of bad digital architecutre. For there is such as thing as ‘troll-evoking’ design that facilitates ‘effortless, consequence-free, transient anonymity in the service of a goal […] that stands entirely apart from one’s identity or personality. Call it drive-by-anonymity’. Going further, Lanier worries that such designs can ‘accentuate negative patterns of behavior or even bring about unforeseen social pathology’. In a speculative moment he displays great foresight vis a vis the London unrest.

‘It’s not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of  young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age? [1] 

Notwithstanding the hyperbole about ‘fascist’ mobs, anonymous pack dynamics were certainly visible.

[1] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Penguin, London, 2011, p.63,64.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting one, and striking to this reader at least -- I've been guilty of setting up internet pseudonyms for the sake of mischief a few times over the past few years, though always with an acute sense of guilt, and potential embarrassment at exposure, such that I've done it very infrequently (mainly for April Fool's set-ups, it must be said). But then I am a part of more than one fixed, defined, cohesive community, so am always conscious of a real possibility of getting rumbled. Also, there is my massgoer's guilt, of course. Thought-provoking enough that you point to this ano-/pseudo- nymous aspect of computer culture; now I'm curious to see where you'll go with this file-sharing idea, which is immediately attractive....