Lanier was one of the leading gurus of ‘Web 2.0’ futurism. Now, he sees the monster he helped create as a mortal threat to political discourse, economic stability, human dignity, and society in general.
The article is worth reading in full, but Lanier’s views on the effects of web culture on politics are particularly noteworthy. He is especially critical of the idea that ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ will result in ever-upward enlightenment. It is just as likely that the crowd will degenerate into an online lynch mob:
As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture – the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites – as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.Most people have a capacity for cruelty but online anonymity enables them to unleash that cruelty with impunity. Worse, the web enables like-minded cruel people to cohere rapidly, via twitchy social networks, into a cruel mob.
On this blog, we have a relatively simple comments policy (see right-hand column). The kernel of that policy is to insist on everyone using their real, full name because it forces them to think twice before commenting. We refuse to accept anonymous or pseudonymous comments, not because all anonymous commenters are arseholes but because all arsehole commenters are anonymous.