Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

We Are Not Anonymous

Imagine it's 1813. Two hundred years ago today. And for whatever reason, you want to disappear. You pack your bag, you hire a coachman in the night and the following morning you walk into a town with a false name, and start over.

OK. It might not have been quite that simple, but two centuries later, it definitely isn't. Your ability to slip through the net of surveillance has all but vanished. Means of identification, for one thing, have become dramatically more powerful and prevalent.

This weekend, a feature of mine is being published as the cover story in the latest issue of New Scientist. The headline is, "The End of Anonymity". Within, I explore some of the reasons behind anonymity's demise.

"Increasingly associated with crime, malice and terrorism, anonymity has become a hold-all for bad stuff"

Increasingly associated with crime, malice and terrorism, anonymity has become a hold-all for bad stuff. Much like the word "cyber" which, as I pointed out in July, it is now commonly deployed by politicians when they want to talk about the "dark side" of the web.

But the evidence for whether anonymity is really itself to blame for the ills of trolling and cybercrime is scattered and inconclusive. I explain this in my feature and, naturally, I recommend you go and buy a copy of New Scientist right now in order to get the full story. As the magazine's editorial comments, "many of us have already given up our anonymity as our physical and digital lives have become entangled."

Questions over what it means to engage in anonymous interaction have been asked since the dawn of the web. Here is a CBC report from 1993 in which "internet enthusiast" John Allen asserts that, far from encouraging anti-social behaviour, anonymity seems to have no negative impact on a binding sense of civility for early web users (skip to 1:45).

"One would think that if you're anonymous, you'd do anything you want. But groups have their own sense of community and what we [are allowed] to do."

Interesting, no?

In 1995, Sandra Bullock blockbuster The Net fretted over the potential for all electronic records about a person to be tampered with. Identity theft was set to be the plague of the internet age. But increasingly, people concerned about the girth of big data aren't so worried that it will be falsified, but that it has become accurate in the extreme, tying every digital action inextricably to ourselves, where we are, what we like and who we know.

My feature for New Scientist is available online via subscription here. The magazine is published in the UK, North America and Australia.


Photo: "V" by Carlos Varela. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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