SXSWi: “Surviving Technology” and Creating Accountability
While some of George Friedman’s predictions may be a bit far-fetched (as far as I know, we are not at war with Japan, nor on the brink of another Cold War with Russia), I found little to dissent with during his “Surviving Technology” presentation at SXSW Interactive last week. When my colleague, Linsey McNew, invited me to hear him speak, I was eager to attend thinking we’d get some further insight into what really went down with the Anonymous hack. And while his speech did start out describing the attack in detail (transparency and honesty are critical after all, especially with this crowd), it evolved into something much more profound (profound enough to make me write my first ever blog post for LPP, apparently).
One of his (many) points that especially resonated with me and what I’d like to hone in on in this post is how truly vile and hostile people are towards each other online. Friedman pointed out that the Internet provides a cloak of anonymity that people believe gives them carte blanche to say whatever they desire with little to no consequence. He made the point that in an online forum, you see people saying things to one another that you would never witness on the street (unless maybe you’ve stumbled upon a gang fight, or two teenage girls). I found myself literally nodding my head in agreement, as I consistently find myself appalled at what people say to each other online, even in the comments section of technology trade publications! For instance, here is a chain I came across a while back in the comments section of an article in a top IT publication quoting one of my clients:
- Throw this story over there on the pile of Safari's dismal security track record.
- I'll throw your comment on the 'morons who know nothing but can't help opening their mouths' pile, shall I?
- Oopsie - you've dribbled Apple Kool Aid down the front of your black turtleneck.
- Oopsie looks like your dribbling your ritalin down your bib. You should get you mummy to wipe that up for you.
- Too hard to admit that you're wrong and that your pathetic acceptance of this article's fatal flaws is rather sad?
No wonder so many sites have disabled comments altogether or at least disable them when it comes to more controversial articles. Though, this article was not exactly polarizing in my opinion. It had to do with security patching, not politics, sex or religion. When it comes to articles on those topics, I’ve seen far more vitriol; hence the reason I picked the above for my example. And while this exchange is fairly harmless – these two clowns are basically accusing each other of being toddlers (I think. I’m not even sure really. What does a black turtleneck have to do with anything?), it furthers Friedman’s point that the anonymity of the Internet allows for behavior outside the social mores of the “real world.” Drawing on his experience, he points out that it allows for criminal activity. While I don’t see these two engaging in that kind of act (unless it were an attempt caught by World’s Dumbest Criminals), I do see this kind of behavior becoming the norm online and that’s a scary thought.
This is slippery slope territory. Where do you draw the line? I mean we have to have free speech and all that good First Amendment stuff (I’m quoting Friedman to a tee, by the way). That is supposedly the mission of these hacktivist groups after all - to achieve total transparency and make intelligence firms, corporations and political figures accountable for what they say and do, even when their actions are done under the “cloak of anonymity” online. However, Friedman argues, with their efforts to achieve a global stage where openness is mandated, hacktivists are setting in motion a process to achieve the exact opposite of what they want. When you’re costing companies like Sony 170 million dollars, suppression is going to occur, he so aptly stated. Once again, I was in complete agreement. I think not only corporations, but people are terrified. I now see not only companies reigning in what they say and do (for instance, some of my clients will no longer comment on specific topics and I can’t say I blame them), but I also see individuals censoring themselves more and more. I know I think a lot more about what I say or post to my social media channels these days. And while to some extent, that’s a good thing (maybe some people don’t want to hear about my intense dislike of Texas A&M football – that one has gotten me in trouble before). I believe I should be able to express myself, while at least maintaining some semblance of respectfulness (I was raised in the South after all).
And while companies should not expect the same level of freedom as individuals, they should not have to live in fear and suppress the freedoms of the individuals that make up their organizations. Unfortunately, that appears to be the direction we’re heading in; one attendee even remarked that this new era of online fearfulness resembles McCarthyism. Friedman concluded his discussion by stating that we need technology that allows for selective anonymity, but at the same time holds people accountable. So how do you achieve this when our court system doesn’t even have much of a common law system in place for those who misuse the Internet? And then there’s the issue of jurisdiction – another topic I could go on and on about, but I will spare you, dear reader. Friedman makes the case that it is up to technologists to mount a concerted effort aimed at accountable anonymity. I say what about federal legislation? There’s only so much technologists can do if they aren’t backed by the one body that dictates the majority of our daily activities. So, this is my call to you legislators (I know all 535 of you are reading this). We need more regulation. But not too much, please. We can’t enact censorship in order to combat it, after all.