Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The online world: we just don't know where we're going


How do you connect Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, US surveillance, the blocking of access to online porn, and the biggest space battle in history?

Private Manning (above) leaked millions of classified (though not Top Secret) documents because he became enraged at what he saw as a war crime. But he's just been convicted, all the same, of espionage charges that allow of no public interest defence. The UK Prime Minister is currently proposing to block access to online pornography as a matter of course - unless you want to press a button saying 'I'd like some of this, please'. And an enormous virtual clash in cyberspace has just wiped out thousands of fictitious ships and lives. Not that you felt that easygoing about it if you've been playing for months, but still.

Want to know what connects them? It's that we don't know how to grapple with our different selves - online, offline, and somewhere in between. Okay, I know it sounds like a right old squeeze, but hear me out here.

It's just like the mid- to late-nineteenth century. No-one knew then what in many ways a much more fundamental breakthrough - the creation of the worldwide electric cable network - was taking them. There was a fevered sense that the 'world was now all connected'. That 'nation would speak peace unto nation'. That a huge leviathan, of uknown weight, speed and anger, was waking up - pulling the world's nations and peoples behind it. Reshaping political and economic space. Making the world anew. Now a lot of that wasn't true, of course. Being able to get the New York Stock Exchange prices today, rather than in two days' time, wasn't exactly the earth-shattering transformation it appeared to be at the time. Using cables and telegraphs was expensive. They broke down. They got garbled (registration required). And whoever really thought that meeting people more, and talking to them more often, meant that you would like them more anyway?

But the point was that, intellectually and ideologically, citizens and governors were grappling with a new force that they found it very hard to understand. And which, eventually, would push them towards enforcing their borders and seizing back controls over an increasingly 'de-centred' world. Passports. Border checks. Spying. It was all really born in that era - and it's no accident, because the telegraph frightened policymakers everywhere.

It's a similar eruption that's happening now: bitter scraps over individuals' rights and autonomy as against the state. Technophobia and expert ripostes (since, for instance, anyone can get round online filtering in about five minutes). Public uncertainty and ignorance, reflected in deep fissures about the very nature of reality and morality. Where does state business and immunity end, and legal constraints begin? What is a secret, and what is public property? Who should look at whose bodies online, and with what restrictions? And has there really just been a massive space battle in Eve Online, or was it all just a load of coloured lines on a screen?

You be the judge. Because no-one else really knows either.

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