Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Internet and the death of anonymity

So I'm sitting here in my office (with my thinking cap on), working on a post about some aspect of the world around me, or even my world. And I upload it to TheDailyUpload, and then you notice I've done that and you read it. It seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it?

But as normal as it seems now, it wasn't that long ago that the world looked a lot different. From the way we got our news, to the way we communicated, and the way we acted towards each other. In fact, when you stop to think about it, the changes are profound and they haven't stopped. We're in the midst of an info revolution and we can only guess at the ultimate effect it will have.

So I was intrigued by Michael Kinsley's new article on Slate, the online magazine where he used to hang out (and co-founded). It's called Like I Care: On The Internet Everybody Knows You're A Dog.

The title comes, of course, from the famous New Yorker cartoon of a dog sitting at a keyboard, with the tagline "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

While anonymity was once touted as the strength of the medium, today's Internet has turned that concept on its head. As Kinsley points out:
But anonymity does not actually seem to interest many of the Web's most devoted users. They are the ones who start their own sites, or sign up for MySpace, or submit videos to YouTube. Quite the opposite: The most successful Web sites seem to be those where people can abandon anonymity and use the Internet to stake their claims as unique individuals. Here is a list of my friends. Here are all the CDs in my collection. Here is a picture of my dog. On the Internet, not only does everybody know that you're a dog. Everybody knows what kind of dog, how old, your taste in collars, your favorite dog food recipe, and so on.

As Kinsley wanders through his article, he seems worried about what's happening. But he doesn't claim to have any answers. Just a lot of questions. And a niggling concern that what's happening might not be all good.

I share his concern. While I'm an unabashed supporter of new technology, I worry about the way our society is evolving. The online freedom we enjoy has a dark side. People say things online they'd never mention face-to-face. And the world seems like a darker place, thanks to how much we know about all the bad things going on around us.

I love melodramas and the other night I watched How Green Was My Valley. It's the story of a Welsh coal mining village's evolution from idyllic to ruined wasteland, thanks to the success of the Industrial Revolution.

OK, I'm stretching things, I admit. But the Internet has changed our world, just as the Industrial Revolution changed that Welsh valley. But the people in that village packed up and moved to other places. Life went on. Some of it was good and some was bad.

Like Kinsley, I don't know whether all this is good or bad. Of course, I have plenty of opinions. And as a good citizen of the Web, I'll keep posting them and pointing to other people's thoughts and suggesting that you do the same.

And in another 30 years, I'll probably regret some of them just as much as I regret wearing that plaid suit and those tinted glasses.

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