The Anonymity Disorder
How society disintegrates around us
Certainly, everyone who has access to the internet (or who is accessed by the internet) has observed the phenomenon or has experienced some inconvenience as a result of it.
You don’t know who actually sent the attachment.
You don’t know who actually set up the website.
You don’t know who is chatting you up.
The next thing you know your Hospital or Business is crippled and its records are inaccessible, and the people responsible are hiding in plain sight and demanding bitcoin payments.
Consider the reasons for this, and there are several, but they mostly boil down to the fact that we cannot hold anyone accountable for anything unless we know who the hell they are.
This is in some ways, built into the architecture underlying the net. It was designed by scientists who knew each other well, and who were utterly naïve about what it could become. The internet is “free” and did not need to be anything but a tool for scientists. The sources of the packets in the underlying protocol are not readily identifiable, they are anonymous.
We did not evolve within anonymous societies. We did not evolve as anonymous economic entities grouped in random tribes but as cooperative troops of naked apes. We did not evolve in the protected anonymity of a teeming metropolis.
We are ill-equipped to deal with these new limitations on how we obtain a shared reality with our tribe. When we cannot tell when we are speaking with the village idiot, the community con-artist or the tribe’s wise man we are denied clues about how to trust the information we get.
When we cannot tell if we are speaking with someone who is from our village, we are at risk of being abducted and enslaved.
When we cannot tell if we are even speaking with a human? We are at risk of being eaten.
Voltaire made the point clear – “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. We are human and we have a need to trust others to form our societies, we have a need to be part of a tribe, and the internet makes all tribes possible and rips apart the previous social order.
Who do you trust?
If you wish to retain human civilization and remain human, you need to think HARD about the answers to those questions.
The giving of trust, the establishment of a web-of-trust (which is also a term in cryptography), appears to be part of our human instincts. We do not do well as solitary humans. We are vulnerable if we are alone in the jungle. Our new neoliberal economic delusion attempts to force us into solitary competition and we are told to become “homo-economicus”. We seek out those who are like ourselves and form new tribes online. Outside the internet, we join gangs.
The internet makes this process easy, and destructive. Easy because the communication is global and near-instant; destructive because it is easy to create a new tribe around any self-consistent falsehood (and because even elementary logic is not taught in our schools, even consistency is not truly necessary). We have no ability to be sure of the truth, and no indication of the veracity of a source, but when our beliefs conflict with reality we are instantly in conflict with other tribes that believe a different set of alternative facts and with reality. That’s a LOT of conflict and remarkably bad for our society.
It is easier to destroy than to build.
We have NO information where for all the millions of years of our evolution from monkeys with tails who lived in trees, we knew who and what all the other monkeys around us were. Our sources are, anonymous.
Now we anonymously share conspiracy theories online and plot to pull down the people who have different theories including legitimate governments and the reality we have to share to govern ourselves and save our collective environment is just one theory among many. It is available online too but the people observing and reporting it are reviled and mistrusted for being scientists; their findings not accepted because they offend all the conspiracies.
The moon landings were not faked, but a tribe that thinks they were exists online. There is no online indication when you visit the NASA web pages or the conspiracy theorist’s web pages, to tell you the reputation for truth and accuracy of either source.
The internet has evolved a means of verifying that you are on the site you think you are visiting. HTTPS allows the site access to be verified through cryptographic Transport Layer Security (TLS) to protect page security and authenticity. The conspiracy theorist cannot pretend to be NASA, but we continue to not truly know who or what is behind the page, and we continue to not truly know how much trust to have in them.
Human civilization is based on us communicating truthfully and believing the same reality. Even when we are wrong, the society that understands and believes the same thing remains a cohesive society.
The answers to this level of the problem are addressed further in a separate essay here Fixing the Media that Consumes us.
The other level is a bit less tractable, though it is partly solved because the teeming metropolis appears to be our destiny as a species. We cannot avoid the crowding and we are genetically limited in our ability to cope with it; Dunbar’s number imposes a potent limitation on our ability to perceive other people as being part of our tribe; people with whom we share freely, people we warn of danger and defend when they are attacked.
The partial solution we’ve devised is utterly obvious and completely invisible to us because we’ve lived with it for so very long.
We govern ourselves.
Government is a necessary part of any society larger than Dunbar’s number (usually a bit less than 200 people); larger than a tribe. The people who have adopted extremes of libertarianism have basically abandoned all hope of having, or retaining, a more advanced civilization, or have adopted anarchy.
So rather than railing against big government, we have to actually put in the effort to understand how to govern ourselves equitably. This is very similar to the effort put into the writing of the Constitution of the United States and the justifications in the Declaration of Independence.
What is the fundamental justification for any government to assert a right to govern?
We aren’t to be governed but instead are in control of a government we agree to be governed by. The justification is the consent of the governed.
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” – Thomas Jefferson
I agree with this. I consent to be governed by a government fairly elected.
I may object and protest specific laws, but unless the government stops being fairly elected, my consent remains in force.
And suddenly we are back to the internet and its conspiracies, and we have people visiting Ottawa for the street parties and free downtown parking, and tents pitched to block access to Parliament. Someone anonymous has lied, and a random tribe has grown to believe the lies.
For any society of humans, anonymity is a condition that leads to anarchy.
 (Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson 1975 )