The Politics of Anonymity

What do Ellis Bell, Victoria Lucas and Jane Somers have in common? They’re pseudonyms (and, incidentally, women have used them). More specifically, they’re nom de plumes, assumed by their users for diverse reasons, which I’ll return to.

But first, have you noticed how often these days, commentators pick on technology? As if we humans can’t be held fully responsible for its effects. Take this recent example of journalistic sensationalism, ‘How the internet created an age of rage’. Does that heading grab your attention? Or does it make you wonder what’s happened to human agency if we view the internet as a creator (let alone blame it for our moods)? The idea of our loss of volition recurs in Tim Adams’ first line: ‘The worldwide web has made critics of us all.’ Sure – just as we all can write and publish online and to hell with quality. But such slack logic offers scant contrast to the reactive troll mentality that, it seems, so exercises Adams. Where were all these trolls before the blogosphere reached critical mass?

Humans have always been violent, competitive primates in varying degrees. Yet, according to some credible and relatively peaceful sources*, this tendency grew, or became ingrained, with the rise of agriculture. Every pundit and his dog likens our digital revolution to the cultural change catalysed by the advent of the printing press. But in terms of its impact on the planet, we might as well compare it with the shift from hunting and gathering to breeding captive animals and plants – a transition during which humans lost sight of Earth as giver (a blind spot that persists and keeps on deepening) and became takers instead of receiving, reducing the Earth and its bounty to objects, justified by an emerging God complex. This trend has continued apace, gaining momentum in the industrial age, and now that seemingly endless consumer choice has humans dazed and confused, it figures that they’d passively defer to something greater, which, due to religion’s failures, atheism’s rise and the depletion of nature, leaves just one obvious candidate: high tech/artificial intelligence. (And why think for yourself when statistics show it can cause depression?)

As Douglas Rushkoff says in his astute survival guide, Program or be Programmed (2010), ‘We are living in an age when thinking itself is no longer a personal activity but a collective one. … We do not come up with our thoughts by ourselves anymore, so it’s awfully hard to keep them to ourselves once we share them.’ (Hopefully this fact will let average folk empathise with so-called schizophrenics and help break down the debatable divisions between the ‘sane’ and the ‘mentally ill’?)

If thinking is stressful, requiring such effort, though it distinguishes us from animals, which can’t think, or we don’t think they can (to know that, we’d need to be telepathic, but we’ve lost the knack of hearing much that’s not coming from speakers or headphones or earbuds)… then why not delegate our self-proclaimed higher intelligence to our machines (even if just for the sake of convenience)? Who doesn’t need more time to field emails and keep up with tweets (a reductive means of transmission indeed – how far have we really come from troglodytic grunts?)?

Anyway, Adams goes on to explain that psychologists have a name for online bullying: deindividuation. The syndrome occurs ‘because identities are concealed’. And not only do digital media allow it, ‘they almost require it’. In fact, ‘most of the evidence suggests that [social media] is likely, when combined with anonymity, to reinforce groupthink and extremism’. Adams humbly offers an antidote, ‘standing by your good name’, and concludes, ‘Generally … who should be afraid to stand up and put their name to their words? And why should anyone listen if they don’t?’

Perhaps life really is that simple in the black-and-white domain ruled by media monopolies that withhold or skew information. But, personally, I’m less afraid to put my name to my words than I am to put some of my words to my name. As an emerging writer seeking publication in those journals that most impress agents, major publishers and funding bodies, the subtlest whiff of certain topics or attitudes could exclude my work. And I don’t mean right-wing prejudices or sentiments but themes and concerns that to most left-leaning academics seem so far out of left field that from where I stand left and right look united.

Rushkoff’s logic is more compelling than Adams’, reflecting a social conscience: ‘Because digital technology is biased toward depersonalization, we must make an effort not to operate anonymously, unless absolutely necessary.’ Note the disclaimer. If your words, however honest and ethically motivated, could be used against you when you don’t have a banner or brand or track record to fall back on, you’d be courting martyrdom by putting your name to them.

Meanwhile, the politics of anonymity cuts both ways. That’s why humans give their pets, animals they’re attached to, cute names, yet think nothing of eating the flesh of other animals with enough intelligence to put that of many humans to shame (I’m thinking of ‘bacon’ but the same might also apply to ‘chops’ or ‘steak’). No wonder humans can be induced to kill others from unfamiliar cultures – killing which, whether of four- or two-leggeds, is increasingly mediated by technology, thus distancing its technicians from individual responsibility. If we take abuse and degrading slaughter of innocent animals for granted, we can be made to do the same to humans we think of as animals – and how Tim Adams or anyone could imagine that the internet has activated some unprecedented pack mentality, when violence and ‘cruel dismissiveness’ are implicated daily in the contents of the normal person’s shopping trolley, freezer and dinner plate is a paradox that escapes analysis in most PC publications, according to which homo sapiens sapiens tops the food chain, ergo it’s fine to enslave and mass-murder ‘livestock’ etc. as long as we do so ‘humanely’; torture of lab rats etc. is essential if the goal is our welfare.

Which reminds me; Emily Brontë took the pen name ‘Ellis Bell’ so her gender wouldn’t prejudice readers against Wuthering Heights. Sylvia Plath authored The Bell Jar as ‘Victoria Lucas’ so her (first and last) novel wouldn’t blow her cred as a poet. Feminist icon Doris Lessing, who’d long since achieved success, submitted two novels by ‘Jane Somers’ to make a point about publishers.

Anonymity can enable perpetration, victimhood or privacy, protecting vulnerable members of minorities from discrimination if they voice dissent re the mainstream. Anonymity, like technology, is neutral until we use or abuse it.

* Notes William Irwin Thompson in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light (1981): ‘If [the hunter’s] manhood is insignificant in producing food in the chase, it can become significant in protecting women and wealth (p. 133).’

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