Friday, January 28, 2011

On Pseudonymity

I really wanted to like Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier is an interesting figure, something of a celebrity among computer nerds of a certain age. He was the sort of person who got profiled in Wired back in the days when that magazine was worth reading. An MIT hacker, in the mid-1980's he used profits from an early computer game to bankroll a startup company that developed virtual reality hardware, and for a while was the leading exponent of that technology.

There are a lot of things to not like about You Are Not a Gadget, but the one which perhaps irritated me the most is his attitude about anonymity and pseudonimity. Lanier blames online anonymity for a whole host of problems, but reserves most of his criticism for the boorishness of anonymous posters in blog comments and other online fora. I think it is fair to say that he believes people would be a lot more polite if their blog posts and other online interactions were linked to their real-world identities in some kind of publicly traceable way.

Lanier bemoans the fact that the current architecture of the net makes anonymous interactions easy and attributable ones difficult, and traces this to the tech culture of Silicon Valley in the '80s and '90s. Basically, he says that the people who wrote the first one-to-many communications software were a bunch of dopers (well, ex-dopers) who wanted to make sure that the cops wouldn't be able to use their software to track down users who talked about drugs and other counterculture topics. A fair sample of his argument was published here. The version of the argument in the book admits that there are some users in some places who rightly fear for their lives and freedom if they speak out in a way that attracts the attention of the authorities (though he has no suggestions about how anonymous speech is to be enabled for, say, Chinese dissidents and not slashdot trolls). (Another reason not to like this book, BTW, is that consists almost entirely of minimally-edited rehashes of his previously-published columns.)

Along the way, he commits this technical howler:
Why was drive-by anonymity supported by Usenet? You could argue that it was the easiest design to implement at the time, but I’m not sure that’s true. All those academic, corporate, and military users belonged to large, well-structured organizations, so the hooks were immediately available to create a nonanonymous design. If that had happened, today’s Web sites might not have inherited the drive-by design aesthetic.
Which "hooks" he is talking about are not at all obvious: the ease with which we create "anonymous designs" flows directly from the decentralized architecture of the net, which just a few sentences before he concedes to have been a fundamental goal in its design. But for me the most annoying part of his thinking is the assumption that the only legitimate excuse for wanting to remain anonymous is the threat of arrest:
Well, I had never been worried about being arrested in America! I suspect that all the others at the table had experienced that worry, though. Experimentation with illegal, mind-altering drugs was the rule, not the exception, in computer culture at the time. For some reason I was never interested in drugs, so that fear wasn’t something I knew directly. Many influential engineers were also a few years older than I was, the right age to have faced the draft to fight in Vietnam.
Well, I have no illusion that using a pseudonym will offer me any protection if the authorities ever want to find me, but that's not the point. Lanier is blinded by the advantages of his position: as a famous pioneer in technology, he will never want for a job. No prospective employer is ever going to google his name and circular-file his application on the basis of what turns up. I, on the other hand, work in the private sector in America, and I do not have the advantage of being a rock star among engineers. If history is any guide, I'll be looking for another job sometime in the next five years, and there is a good chance that some HR person will google the name on my resume and (if my web postings were not pseudonymous) conclude that his company doesn't need someone with my views on politics and the law, even before he looks at my technical qualifications.

So I'm going to remain pseudonymous, at least when I'm not writing about technology.

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