Some Assembly Required

J onathan Zittrain created this idea of generativity, which has become the essence of the Internet. In his novel The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, he describes it as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences”. The openness and unlimited characteristics of the […]

Jonathan Zittrain created this idea of generativity, which has become the essence of the Internet. In his novel The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, he describes it as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences”. The openness and unlimited characteristics of the Internet are part of what makes it generative – there is no limit to what people can do. So, where does anonymity play a role in this aspect? Well, anonymity is just another aspect of generativity in many different aspects. Someone may be anonymous on the Internet when voicing an unpopular opinion and the generativity of the Internet allows him or her to do so.

Zittrain argues that any adjustment to the Internet should be done with the least amount of harm to its generativity, but Bryan Choi raises the question of how to determine the least amount of harm. In his article “The Anonymous Internet”, Choi discusses the solution to Zittrain’s argument – limiting anonymity on the Internet. The question whether anonymity is beneficial or harmful to the Internet and by extension, the general public, is dependent on whose anonymity is involved.

“Yet, if we accept that some regulation is necessary, then preserving generativity requires a reduction in anonymity and, conversely, preserving anonymity requires a reduction in generativity. Thus, the fate of the generative Internet is inversely linked to how vigorously we choose to defend the anonymous Internet. Those who think generativity is the most important attribute of the Internet should be prepared to cede some anonymity. As long as anonymity remains inviolate, generativity will be the loser. That choice should be seen not as sacrificing liberty for security, but as prioritizing one liberty over another.” (Choi 2013)

In their article “Why Do People Seek Anonymity on the Internet?”, Ruogu Kang, Stephanie Brown and Sara Kiesler presented their research, which was set find answers to that simple question. In short, their results showed that about 53 percent of the users in the study used the Internet anonymously for “illegal or malicious activities”. Largely, the study participants used anonymity to protect them from personal threat, but also when “seeking help or doing other activities might make them seem socially undesirable or needy”.

Someone may be anonymous on the Internet when voicing an unpopular opinion and the generativity of the Internet allows him or her to do so.

David Davenport struggles with the idea of anonymity fringing on our basic freedoms to speech and press. In his article “Anonymity on the Internet: Why the Price May Be Too High?” he doesn’t believe that anonymity is the issue here – instead, it’s accountability.

“Distrusting a government accountable to the people is one thing, facilitating a government completely unaccountable is quite another…It was distrust of government that led to calls for anonymous communications as a means to ensure free speech. The end result of anonymity, however, plays right into governments hands and has little real impact in terms of free speech.” (Davenport 2002)

Whatever the intentions of the government, are their actions justifiable, even if it means infringing on the rights of its people? Who’s accountable in this case – the government or its people?

In his article “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, J.C.R. Licklider discusses the relationship between man and his computer. His dreams eventually led to the modern Internet. Let’s take another trip down memory lane in regards to the progression of computers, but this time not so far back. It was the early 2000’s where we had dialup Internet and Internet browsers, like Google Chrome or Safari, didn’t exist. Instead, it was the dialup AOL. Oh, the good ol’ times. My point is that since then computers and the Internet have drastically improved and made using them more easy and efficient.

In this article in ‘The Guardian’, the author Tim Adams uses a term to help describe this situation – deindividuation. Psychologists define it as when “social norms are withdrawn because identity is concealed”.  Has this happened? There’s no denying that violent and sometimes disturbing remarks are made on the Internet, some anonymously, some under a pseudonym, and some even using their own identity. You don’t agree with me? Well, take a look at the comments section on a YouTube video or look at a celebrity Twitter page. Need I go on?

In the 1970’s, Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg envisioned something that would make computers more efficient – the Dynabook. The Dynabook was the portable computer that still did everything a desktop did. Their original target audience was children who wanted to do something more than play with toys. Nowadays, it seems like children are born knowing what technology is. My two-year old nephew has been able to navigate an iPhone for a while now. He doesn’t understand it fully, but knows that certain buttons do certain things.

Ted Nelson, the author of Computer Lib/Dream Machines, said this about media and Internet. What does anonymity on the Internet say about our society? Anonymity for the sake of our rights and freedoms? Anonymity with ill intentions? Will the rage mentioned in Adams’ article become a greater part of society?

“Media today focus the impressions and ideas that in previous eras were conveyed by rituals, public gatherings, decrees, parades, behavior in public, mummer’ troupes . . . but actually every culture is a world of images. The chieftain in his palanquin, the shaman with his feathers and rattle, are telling us something about themselves and about the continuity of the society and position of the individuals in it.”  (Nelson  1974)

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