The Limits of Cyberanarchy

Posted on 17/02/2011 by

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Anarchy, as I understand it, is the political and social orientation which holds that all formalised systems of hierarchy and social control – notably governments – are axiomatically oppressive and need to be dismantled permanently. A fast way to start arguments between anarchists is to wonder aloud about the methods necessary to dismantle said organisations.

My focus herein, however, is not to talk about anarchy in general, but to consider the application of anarchist concepts to the Internet. On the face of it, the situation seems perfect for ushering in true anarchy: the Internet is a world where not only do none of the normal rules of day-to-day life apply, (eg gravity,) but also where one can truly be free of one’s own identity.

Being without face and name is a very exhilarating experience, to be certain. It gives one’s online life an almost separate feeling; what Winston Smith does in his regular life is only related to Anon_#38571 by both identities coexisting in the same physical person. However, the differences between the two individuals could be quite extreme: one might be a mild-mannered accountant by day, and the other an SQL injecting, Guy Fawkes mask-toting, HBGary-pwning force of nature. Or simply a 14 year-old schoolgirl with an “interest” in older men.

Whatever the case, though, the freedom of the experience is powerful, and by default can help a person trend toward what could be labelled anarchy. Governments, for example, can legitimately be considered antagonistic toward the freedom of anonymity, through its many efforts to track absolutely everyone all the time for ‘security’.

If I may be forgiven a degree of reductionism, I’d like to posit a continuum of anarchistic behaviour on the Internet. On one extreme is where people self-organise, only do onto others what they’d do unto themselves, (ie the Golden Rule,) and were generally a very orderly bunch who need no moderation. Looking to the other side, there are Darwinian anarchists, who consider the survival of the fittest to be the name of the game, and call for no-holds-barred, rule-free environment for unrestricted actions.

The ideal of anarchy is the former part, where everyone is considerate and do not need any moderation or rules, because they are cooperative, not antagonistic. This is a very noble and idealistic goal, one to which I aspire, and fail at, because my impulse control is sometimes rather weak. There are times when I cannot resist the urge to flame at someone, even in the midst of a relatively calm and ordered conversation.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is often weak, as the saying goes. And I am someone who tries to be balanced and compassionate in my online discourse.

Now, let’s talk about those who want to do nothing but flame and aggress upon people. Commonly these people are called trolls, but I’d like to see them as being anarchistic (as opposed to being a proper Anarchist.) When there are no rules, it is only logical that some people will, for whatever reason, post hatred or aggression; in essence, turn a discussion board or chat room into a Fight Club.

Here the ideal of anarchy breaks down, because in order to deal with aggressive people disrupting the previously calm self-regulation, people must organise. Irony, yes, but also a tragedy: an ideal has been broken. In the world of chat rooms and discussion boards, this means that what might have been a polite group of chatters becomes more like a pack. Predator-like competition begins, with alphas asserting dominance over the pack and either subordinating or chasing off those who would prefer to take different methods. The chatters can no longer simply go about their business in peace; they had to prepare for onslaughts of flame-spewing aggressors.

This is all well and good, of course, and I’m not saying that this sort of chat room or discussion board should be somehow ‘eradicated’. There are clearly a lot of people in the world who enjoy this rule-less world, and I’m not about to tell them they can’t have their fun. What I am saying, however, is that this cannot and must not be the entirety of the Internet.

One reason is information: if there were no rules enforced upon the Internet, then the quality of the information which one could reasonably expect to find would drop to near zero. Not for lack of people conveying useful thoughts, but because of the ease of creating flames (bad information) as compared to important content (good information.) If Google, for example, could not return anything but aggressive hate information, or even pure spam (take a left and a right, say Hail Xenu, install Thetan v14.5, and you’re there,) when one is searching for the nearest post office, then there is a very reasonable question as to why many people would want to utilise the Internet as a tool.

In that same vein, how would people make investment decisions, if they cannot find moderated information about the opportunities which are presented in the world? Or learn about the latest revolutions against US-backed dictators in the Middle East?

More fundamentally, however, is how total anarchy and the Internet are not, in point of fact, compatible. Although Internet access, in my opinion, should be a human right, it still involved extremely complex structures, both physical and electronic. There must be the infrastructure in place to allow computers to be linked into the Internet, and there must be the software to permit this infrastructure to be utilised.

Creating both requires, obviously, organisations which have the ability to moderate their internal activities and conduct. Even considering open-source software projects, with participants all across the world, a friendly development community is paramount to maintaining the project. Consider, for example, Ubuntu’s Code of Conduct.

The Internet is absolutely the most complex and complicated thing ever devised by humanity. Because of this, it and all dependencies – stock markets, inventory management, et cetera – are the most fragile systems on the planet. The preservation and propagation of the Internet requires that people be largely orderly and non-violent; even with all the crime and war that is in the world, those really are the exceptions within human experience and not the rule. The mere existence of the Internet is proof enough of the actually fairly peaceful and orderly functioning of the human race.

This orderly peacefulness does not arise spontaneously; it arises out of structure, be they economic, social, or political. With people operating within order and rules, complexity can arise and flourish. As an observation, this is probably why many are so enamoured with the Internet’s out-of-control facets, and why they are sometimes defended in very vociferous terms: it is a psychological release from the structure of the ‘real’ world.

By all means, there can and must be ‘sections’ of the Internet where there are no rules, and people’s imaginations can run riot, often with their flames. However, those ‘sections’ can never be the entirety of the Internet, because that would destroy the Internet: chaos is the complexity-killer. Indeed, if the anarchistic tendencies of some ‘sections’ were allowed to rule all, the Internet would grind to a halt – no more financial support – and wonderland of infinite possibility would cease to exist.

So, the people who desire anarchistic Internet experiences are indeed owed their right to have that experience. However, they also have an obligation to understand and respect the need for order outside of those ‘sections’ of anarchy. The opportunity to participate in such a ‘section’ rests upon an edifice of civilisation, and civilisation is inherently a creature of law and order.

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Posted in: Analysis