Sunday, 5 March 2017

The real threat of online anonymity isn't Russian hacking - part two


These little interstices are shrinking in the world of the real at an alarming rate. Even Donald Trump’s space to talk freely on that bus a decade ago was invaded, not only by the prying eyes of the media but by the magic of the online world to which so many people now escape to create their own spaces.

Our society is organised in the interests of stability, one that survives into the future, which in turn necessarily and perhaps unfairly is biased in favour of the status quo (social progress is always “sticky”). The status quo suppresses everyone: men, women and children because individual stability is not as important as the stability of society. The internet offers a relaxation of the status quo, it’s what makes the online space so important.

To the extent society represses a natural instinct in one context, it provides an outlet for it in some other context. Foucault called these “heterotopias,” places society includes within itself where it is acceptable to break rules. The concept is quite profound.

But Dr Friedman fails to account for heterotopias in today’s society. Bathhouses, strip joints, brothels and pornography are some types of heterotopias, but they’re also the more quotidian and conventional heterotopias such as locker rooms, “man-caves,” a bus or sports bars. They serve as a release from the otherwise stifling restrictions on natural sexual and other instincts.

The whole appeal of the social internet was in its liberation. Not only could you be your true self, you could be anyone you wanted. This was possible because it was extremely difficult to tie a virtual identity to your real life one (more about that later).

For anything you do online, there is someone in your life who wishes you didn't. Second, the "I've got nothing to hide" response is the stupidest thing written about this subject. Everyone has something to hide. Pushing back the boundaries of freedom requires people on the other side of that boundary pulling as you push. The struggle for freedom is impossible without this dynamic, and they will be the one's putting their lives at risk. Every woman campaigning for votes, every environmentalist up a tree, every gay couple living under the spectre of sodomy laws, every pothead calling for legalisation is a criminal in the eyes of the law. In order to change the laws, justice demands they be protected from enforcement of unjust laws. And that requires privacy.

The fact that your credit and medical histories are available to the highest bidder is not a justification to open up the rest of my life. It should be held up as an anomaly that demands correction back to the norm.


The force in Dr Friedman’s position looks like it’s coming from a position of safety and ethics. And I’ve seen plenty of other articles questioning anonymity following the Russian hacking allegations. But for most people, his message about “protecting the public space” isn't enough to get an @ mention. No one really cares about public spaces, just look at the rubbish lying in a mosaic around the street bin. "But that's the cleaner's job." You know you're a terrible person, right?

And yet it's worth asking why the dangers of online anonymity being written about. It just so happens that Dr Friedman's message coincides with what the media, social networks and governments also want, so now we have three major vectors summing to form a major crisis. Sure, anonymity allows bullying (HA! Come on, no one cares about your feelings), but what really matters is that it causes people to not want to be online, especially women. That's a big problem because women do most of the clicking and get most of the clicks.

The easy criticism to make is that if people are scared to go online, then all the investment dollars in e-commerce are wasted. To the corporations, if anonymous hacking is a barrier to increasing consumption, then anonymity has gotta go. It's the "moral" thing to do. But if you think about it, the issue isn’t whether we should get rid of online anonymity since this will never happen. No matter how many politicians want to ban anonymity, there will always be a cyber-pirate who can invent a workaround. And only one of them knows what a kernel is.

And really, the NSA (and Twitter) knows there’s no power in removing anonymity. The spooks love it when people say they have an “unbreakable” encryption. Just keep believing that, precious. The real power is in letting people think they have anonymity while secretly retaining the keys to the social network kingdom.

So we can see how the actual trick performed by articles about online privacy is to get you, dear reader, to consume the core message: that anonymity is a bad so you won’t use it. After all, what kind of person uses anonymity? Criminals and vodka-swilling tundra munchers, that's who. And you’re not a criminal, are you?

This propaganda will work because it has to. Everything you’ve ever been told to want depends on the propaganda working. And the less Aspergers a person is, the more she will hate writing anonymously. There it is again, the hideous consumerist machine hanging just outside your vision. Dr Friedman’s article uses respectable ethics about a legitimate geopolitical problem to unwittingly convince you to willingly feed the online beast all your personal information -- for free. The system has won.

Please try to understand. No one is trying to stop cyber-criminals. There’s no point. They don’t use Amazon and no one wants to look at them. The whole game is to get you - not the Russian hackers, not the anonymous trolls, but the consumers - to voluntarily give up their privacy by turning themselves into quantifiable packets of ever-more comprehensive targetable data points. After all, what good are you if you can't make someone else money?


But I really want to focus on that word “you.” The great narrative of the online world has gradually morphed from: “I am interacting with others online” to “I am online interacting with others.” Can you see the subtle shift? It represents both a colossal change in how the internet works and your destruction. 

Back in the days of DARPA, the point of the internet's invention was to push information efficiently across nodes, all of which the scientist knew, to people half a continent away, all of whom the scientist trusted. It was a tool, and it still is a tool, but that’s not how the rest of the money-generating public are supposed to think about it.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, your very soul depends on knowing, not “understanding,” actually knowing that "you" are not online. Only your physical actions inputted into a keyboard or a mouse represented as bits and bytes are online. "You" stay offline at all times.

This is the centre of the argument of anonymity and privacy. We think it’s important to “find a balance” between plugged and unplugged life, a phrase you’ll often hear all over the “plugged” world. The game is to get you to debate the conclusions about where that “balance” should be. But starting here forces us to accept the form of the argument: that there should be a balance, rather than an on/off switch. We aren't offered the choice to assert that our online self is meaningless (which it is). When people say they “need to unplug” the assumption, the form of the argument, is that the default is plugged.

The lesson convinces us our online actions constitute actions in the real. This is nonsense. But it is necessary if the formation of a new power structure being built by companies and "social networks" is going to operate as the new Panopticon. If it works, there will be no need for State-sanctioned cameras anymore. 

Anyone with a Twitter or Youtube account coupled with a smartphone can capture the smallest of traffic infringements or racist remarks and absolutely destroy another person's social life. Paris doesn't need to spend money on street cameras, the millions of personal, front-facing lenses walking down the street will do just fine. Don't even get me started on Google-Glass.

The Stasi would have an orgasm from the amount of information we voluntarily place on Facebook. Part of the impetus for the NSA to ride the wave of internet traffic in the late 1990s and "capture it all," rather than selecting certain products, was they saw the era as the golden age of signals intelligence. The longer they secretly held a huge bucket on one end of the fibre-optic cables, and the more people were goaded into using the internet for all communications, the better it was for them. Corporations think the same thing, albeit in reverse.


And from an online business perspective, if "you" are not really represented online after all, why would we be compelled to return multiple times a day to update our social network profile? Normal adults don't get much pleasure from creating pretend personalities, they left that in the toy box when they discovered beer. So it takes a lot of effort to convince someone to mirror online who they are in the real world. And I do not claim to know how this is done.

But each time you use social networks, your online self becomes a bit more real. Little by little, the online "you" not only broadcasts a completely chosen identity of your most perfect, idealised self, it quite literally becomes your constituted reality. Who wouldn't want this? Who wouldn't want the ability to infinitely alter their identity? Social networks are the natural end-point of a culture marinating in the ideology (not pathology) of narcissism. The ideology depends on others seeing you in exactly the way you wish to be seen. This exhausting activity accounts for, oh, about 90% of our waking life. And it makes us extremely consumable.

The narcissist is the main character in their own movie. Not necessarily the most beautiful, or the strongest, but the main character. You can yell and scream that they're too fat, too old, too stupid or anything else all day and it won't make a difference. He'll only return the insult or yell back and won't register it as an insult. He's still the main character in his movie. It was a drama at first, but now it's an action film. All that matters is he is still the main character.

Social networks might look benign but I think they'll only end in madness and horror because the real threat isn't anonymity or bullying -- it's the narcissistic injury. A narcissistic injury occurs when the narcissist is confronted with the reality that they aren't the main character in their movie, just one of 6 billion other, peripheral characters.

As an example, it's far more enlightening to think of honour killings as the rageful reaction of a narcissistic injury. The worst thing for a narcissist is that his Muslim daughter secretly cavorts with a Christian boy but never tells him. And neither does she act any differently so he can't tell what's going on. If she can do all that, it means she exists independently of him and he isn't the main character. She has her own movie and he's not even in the supporting cast. That injury is the worst fate that can happen to a narcissist. And if that happens to you, don't come home. 


The internet is not a "global commons." The internet is simply a tool to communicate with other humans and conduct voluntary transactions. The point of anonymity online is to dig a moat between your real self and a pretend identity which you'll use to interact with other pretend identities. If you let the narrative that your online and real selves are identical be true, then you can be sold as a product. You must defend against this.

The more our real selves are represented online as the most accurate representation of our identity (the default is plugged), the more we are subject to a new environment of power. And it changes not just life, but death as well. What does it mean to be dead? Doctors say death is the cessation of electronic activity in the brain. But that's not what I asked. I want to know what it means to be dead.

The closest I've ever come to understanding the meaning of death is trapped in the idea: "they say you die twice: first, when your heart stops beating, and second when someone says your name for the last time." In this reading, death is when an individual is no longer registered by other people.

Consider how a missing person is thought. In every important function of social life, they lack insurance, a passport, wants, needs, loves, a job, bills, a political opinion and even a library card. But they aren't necessarily dead, they just aren't registered as alive. The same can be said of a hermit. The moment the five sense can't detect your presence, you "might as well be dead."

Our online selves are being encouraged to represent who we are, and Dr Friedman demands a removal of anonymity to facilitate this transference. Add to this the constant development of new ways to digitally capture our human actions and couple them with an online personality creating an ever-more complex online character, and you can see how gradually our online selves become the prime "body" representing "you." 

But what happens when a person does something bad in this new online world? What happens if the punishment is to exile their online "self" and turn off all their online access? It will be as if that person is dead, because no one else will register the person's existence

If you know anything about humans, you'll see the problem. Narcissistic rage is one response, but it's worse than even this. The fear of death is so fundamental that we will do anything to avoid it. In fact, most people so despise being alone (which is why confinement is an effective punishment), they will prefer death over isolation. We even create stories about how we'll live forever in heaven if only we believe in this book, rather than that book. 

I would say the invention of hell is really another defence against the terror of death. After all, no matter how frightening being forever prodded with a red hot poker by smiling devils might be for a homo sapien, at least it isn't oblivion

Anonymity is the best defence you have against creating a world in which unplugging becomes an existential question.


Finally, I must say a few things about how this connects with power. If anonymity is removed and our identities are transferred and represented online, then social networking corporations and other, yet-to-be-invented internet companies will possess a lever of power unlike any that has existed in history. They will own the ability to "kill" anyone they choose, at any time, for any reason.

The answer to Dr Friedman's problem of anonymity and privacy is simple. When faced with a situation in which there is more noise than signal, the correct move is to increase the signal, not to cut out the noise. If you're worried about "fake news" or Russian hacking, then it's up to you to develop real news and real content. If you're worried about troll behaviour, it's up to you to write useful sentences on forums. If you're worried about "hate speech," then start uploading constructive speech. 

Solzhenitsyn had it exactly:

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood--of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one's family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies--or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one's children and contemporaries.
And from that day onward he:
  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathise, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice. 
But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

Those who want to remove anonymity might feel that, in order to achieve a greater good, it is necessary to commit a lesser evil. But they are being lied to, by themselves. The good they seek can not realised. The evil will swallow them up, as evil always does. And, if we look them in the face, if we read their words, scan their arguments and experience them directly, we sense the presence of evil.

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