Saturday, April 17, 2010

What we're all thinking: "Where am I?"

An important question nowadays is "How important is your online presence?" While the worth of that presence may vary from individual to individual, it has and will continue to appreciate on average. In such case, as society values your time online more and more, you too will begin to weight your online activities with increasing worth, and in exchange, you'll be forced to shed "real-world" commitments. This is happening. Such is evolution.

Some people fear the harm that the internet will cause. They suggest it allows dangerous anonymity, or that it encourages us to act upon our baser immoral urges, or that it allows rampant stupidity. Some people think all of this, and also fear the collapse of society's moral underpinnings in the form of proper speling.

There has been strong outcry, even in ostensibly web-hip circles, against gleamd (a flop based on voting for people's biographies) and especially Unvarnished (the popularity jury is still out on this anonymous person-reviewing site, like a cross-breed between yelp and ratemyteacher). Some have gone so far as to say that a whistle-blower, such as Sherron Watkins of Enron fame, might get thrashed unfairly on such a site by the people she un-anonymously thrashed herself. There is concern that it will turn into a youtube-comment-style anonymous trollfest. I cannot speak to the worthiness of Unvarnished and similar people-rating sites, but I can say that the negative backlash speaks volumes more about the insecurities of web-dwellers than it does about the viability of these ideas.

My response is:

In the case of a whistle-blower, they are neglecting the important variable of time. If a person receives numerous positive reviews, and then is suddenly viewed tremendously negatively, it will raise the obvious question of "Why the sudden change?" And if a whistleblower goes from absent web presence to tremendous public thrashing in the blink of an eye, the transparency of a web-based system should allow that cause-and-effect to be much more apparent than through traditional means. The media is notorious for often championing the wrong guy, and with the short memory of most people, there is no track-record of accountability if they change their story.

The very source-permanence and anonymity being feared are keystones to effective whistle-blowing. With the "history" of web-based systems, it is much easier to build genuine credibility, because an independent source can average accuracy and popularity over time, and a curious auditor can handily check the source's records. Indeed, the meta-auditing options are endless, as not only Google but anyone can create a cache of a public web page for future reference, and automated systems can seek discrepancy against the source's own history and also against alternative sources. Fox news has no "reliability indicator" displayed on top of every broadcast, and the results of their attempts at accuracy look bleak.

Wikipedia has been shown competitive with Britannica in the accuracy of scientific articles. I expect accuracy to improve as a new world order evolves, and the power players in the digital realm are those who organize information (Google, Facebook, Wikipedia) not those who create it. It is astonishing how critical people are of something that has been around for only about 20 years. We will sort out the problems of the net, but like all things worthwhile, it is going to take time and effort.

Granted, I am making two sweeping assumptions: People are generally good; that is, they want the best for other people so long as it is unlikely to be self-detrimental. And, systems can be developed to nurture and capitalize on this human disposition.

Are people really good?

There are paradoxes of human nature, namely: You don't trust hundreds of anonymous web-surfers, but you do trust hundreds of drivers sitting in two-ton steel cages. You won't believe in the average of their anonymous reviews, but you will trust in much less data when choosing a mechanic, dentist, or doctor. People are often afraid that they will be the sole victim of a fluke event, such as a terrorist bombing, and are therefore willing to create a vastly overscaled response, such as TSA security, to a minor threat. Similarly, we carefully check Halloween candy each October although poison and razor blades are statistically nonexistent.

Alas, a tremendous amount of trust is inherent in our social structure. You generally do not fear your neighbor will pipe-bomb you, or that mischievous youths will cut your brakes while you are shopping. We only allow ourselves to fear the fluke, one-in-a-million events, because those are the only ones we can pretend to have control over. Even though automobile accidents are a common and spectacular source of violence, we happily pile ourselves and our children into our cars because the alternative of pedestrianism is so… pedestrian. If neighbors really did routinely pipe-bomb each other, chances are the majority of us would adapt to the new situation handily, as people generally do emotionally adapt, surprisingly so, to wars and catastrophes.

A glorious thing about evolution is that it tidily invents solutions to intractable problems. Solutions like the apparent hard-wiring of our brains not to be completely independent, but rather almost entirely social and cooperative. Each morning, we wake up and go to work, instead of buying a gun, and shooting our neighbors for their money and possessions in a massive free-for-all of destruction. Even when the chances of punishment are negligible, our hard-wiring somehow forbids us from all but the most minor of indiscretions, because we subconsciously know there is a greater scorecard being kept. It is to our own advantage that we all follow the rules.

The only catch, then, is whether we can be sufficiently clever to reinforce these social imperatives in the digital realm, and whether that realm can be put to work shoring up the gaps in our self-policing. Namely, can we prevent dictators and psychopaths, and perhaps most important of all, can we fight the tendency to accept something because it is and has been; things like: global warming, war, pollution, overpopulation, and wretched life conditions?

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller

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