At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.
…And here’s where Lanier says something remarkable and ominous about the potential dangers of anonymity.
“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.
“Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat.
“I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam….Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”
It seems like two different things are being conflated here. I mean, I agree with the general sentiment in that last paragraph, as I’ve said many times. But in each one of those infuriating instances, it hasn’t been some anonymous sociopath instigating flash mob rule; it’s been a famous film director, or bloggers who post under their own names to an enormous audience. Even if most hateful trolls are anonymous, it doesn’t follow that most anonymous commenters are hateful trolls. The grease on the skids to this particular hell is the fact that social media is designed to remove the onerous burdens of reflection and effort, the very things that might prevent people, during a rush of blood to the head, from retweeting vague rumors or attempting to casually wreak havoc with an opponent’s job or personal life. People are the same stupid, impulsive primates they’ve always been; the problem is that so many of them now have the personal tools to drastically magnify, amplify and accelerate whatever petty thought or emotion flits through their mind. Sign your name to your opinion or don’t, but much more importantly, stop and take some time to think before you start a snowball rolling.
Sure, you can force people to provide their full name, address, place of employment, etc. if they want to express an opinion online, but all you’re going to do is create an anodyne environment where no one dares express anything remotely controversial (i.e., actually interesting) for fear of attracting the crusading attention of the Internet’s Erinyes. Personally, I’m more scared of those who feel empowered to act by virtue of representing conventional, moralizing wisdom than I am of those who express subversive opinions under a cloak of anonymity.