Law in the Internet Society

In Defense of Anonymous Freinds

-- By MichaelHughes - 12 Oct 2023


The mass adoption of internet connected personal devices has brought about profound social change. Our connections and social networks are no longer wholly dependant on our physical locations. We depend increasingly on online identities which are wholly disconnected from our physical form and offline activies.

Among my generation the widespread belief is that this shift has been disastrous for our individual and societal well-being. It is easy to see why. Algorithmically driven social media platforms have disrupted our communities and sown political division while unfathomably large tech monopolies have strangled small businesses. Understandably voices from both the political left and the political right call for us to abandon these new technologies and return to a more traditional way of life. These traditionalists are in my view short sighted and reactionary. The movement of our social identities into online spaces presents and unparalleled opportunities for creating a more interconnected world and fostering human freedom.

The New Social Norm

We are witnessing the migration of human life from physical space into digital space. The average person now leads significant portions of their life online. I like most everyone else in my generation have meaningful friendships and communities that exist effectively exist only in digital spaces. These are friends who I speak with exclusively through text or voice chat. My relationship with them is mediated through the technology we use to communicate. In some cases I don't even know their government names. All of my interactions with them are mediated through the technology we use to communicate. The time I spend with them is in a important sense time spent living in a virtual space.

This situation is not uncommon. Tragically the most common virtual spaces inhabited by young people are algorithmically driven social media platforms. These apps are fundamentally hostile places. They are designed to wring profit from their users by capturing their attention through any means necessary. In mindless pursuit of engagement the companies behind these apps have fostered toxic partisan divides, promoted hate speech, and created a mental health epidemic among our nation’s children. Even when they refrain from fostering our worse impulses these platforms seek to capture our attention with an endless stream of mindless content. In doing so they distract us from our real relationships and responsibilities. In Japan the term hikikomori is used to describe young people, typically men, who have withdrawn from society entirely in favor of videogames and other technological distractions. The ever increasing numbers of these shut ins have become enough of a social issue to warrant serious discussion in medical journals.

The Anti-Modernity Reaction

In the face of these dehumanizing systems it is unsurprising that that we hear calls for the complete rejection of the technological revolution we are experiencing. On the left the most virulent anti-tech rhetoric has come from the anarcho-primitivist movement. In the leftist telling technology plays a critical role in the process of social alienation. Just as dehumanizing factory work separates works from the fruits of their labors, reducing them to mere cogs in a machine, technology separates us from our natural state of existence. This natural state is of course understood as an antediluvian utopia. In the words of anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan before the Neolithic shift from a foraging or gatherer-hunter mode of existence to an agricultural lifeway, most people had ample free time, considerable gender autonomy or equality, an ethos of egalitarianism and sharing, and no organized violence.

The anti-technology movement on the right is, like many reactionary movements, difficult to write about because its leading lights resist the kind of rigors self-classification we see on the left. The movement is probably best encapsulated by Bronze Age Pervert, the online pseudonym of far right influencer Costin Alamariu. Alamariu broadly rejects modernity in favor of an idealized patriarchal authoritarian past. In this telling modernity has ushered in an age of decadence and social weakness. While Almariu is singular in his influence, style, and vitriol he is hardly alone on the political right in rejecting modernity. As internet commentator Jeremiah Johnson writes the explicit rejection of even the acknowledged benefits of modernity, technology, and globalization is becoming more common among the American right.

Embracing Anonymity

Along with a dubious understanding of pre-modern social conditions, the left and right wings of the anti-modernity movement share a stubborn refusal to imagine that a better future is possible. Seeing social breakdown these critics reflexively demand that we return to the old ways, to pre-internet methods of personal connection and social organization. By doing so it has also weakened the parochial social norms that once constrained us. It has disrupted our patterns of consumption, and connected us to artisans and producers globally. It has allowed us to form communities with people unbounded by geography.

If we ignore these benefits and choose to lash out at all technology we implicitly accept that the digital world is the exclusive domain of those who would use it to exploit us. Only after we accept that technology is going to be a fundamental part of our existence, that our future is a cyborg future, can we begin to imagine what a better world might look like.

Okay, if this is what you want to write about, this might be how. But you're stretching your evidence pretty tightly. Hikikomori are not a product of the Internet Age; shame culture's casualties can't be written off to technology, for example.

Writing about visions at the edge of rationality suits both William James and Nietzsche: it takes all kinds to make a world. But if "anarcho-primitivists" have something to offer us I don't think we can play it straight with them in order to find it. There's still no software in your Age of Software, and from my point of view that's still a significant drawback.

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r5 - 08 Jan 2024 - 19:58:56 - EbenMoglen
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