Tagged: morality

Sometimes It Crystallises Out: 7 case studies in digital ethics

Other lists could be made – of Wikileaks and Anonymous, of Napster, Mega Upload, the first Facebook facial recognition arrest and the Twitter joke trial. Digital ethics – privacy, ownership, transparency and surveillance – are thorny political topics.

But tonight I want to take another tack, to share with you seven smaller, more personal stories. Seven turning points, seven issues and events from a long span of internet cultural history which brought sharply into focus certain aspects of life, as a human being, on the internet and immersed in social networks. Some moments prescient, or where something started; others where something long-gestated finally came into public view.

I want to frame them as case studies in ethics because they bring into focus questions of how we should behave in these new spaces, these new communities and publics – they are dilemmas about the moral course of action. They bring into focus questions of meaning, and values – and an awareness of how technology changes our capacities, and how it can leave what we had thought of as norms in new and uncomfortable flux.

Perhaps this is also a media archaeology,  in its interest in moments where the mainstream discourse around online cultures changed. New York Times longform articles still seem to hold a disproportionate sway. But enough verbiage: now, the list:

1. A Rape In Cyberspace
by Julian Dibbell
Village Voice, 23 Dec 1993

“I am requesting that Mr. Bungle be toaded for raping Starsinger and I. I have never done this before, and have thought about it for days. He hurt us both.”

Back in the days before the World Wide Web – back in the days before social media, even before webpages – there were always already virtual realities. They were called MUDs: Multi User Dungeons. Users dialled in over the phone network to a purely text-based landscape. Text-based exploration of a virtual space, text-based storytelling – and the text-based development of a virtual community. One of these was  called LambdaMOO.

One day, one of its denizens typed some text on to a screen, and set into motion a chain of events that made it clear: there was no digital dualism. The virtual was socially real.

On this list because: this was the start of cyber ethics

The Bungle Affair raises questions that—here on the brink of a future in which human life may find itself as tightly enveloped in digital environments as it is today in the architectural kind—demand a clear-eyed, sober, and unmystified consideration. It asks us to shut our ears momentarily to the techno-utopian ecstasies of West Coast cyberhippies and look without illusion upon the present possibilities for building, in the on-line spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital. It asks us to behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones. And most forthrightly it asks us to wrap our late-modern ontologies, epistemologies, sexual ethics, and common sense around the curious notion of rape by voodoo doll—and to try not to warp them beyond recognition in the process.

2. The Cybergypsies
a novel by Indra Sinha

An autobiographical novel about the early, early days online. Before I was there – 1984, before I was born. I frame it in that way because this book is intensely personal to me – in some ways there’s not much more I can say about it than that. It’s one of half a dozen things that mean I am here, now, doing this.

The book’s about a lot of things – MUDs, MOOs, sex, Bhopal – and addiction. Sinha believes he spent about £50,000 on phone calls into these virtual worlds – avoiding his life, his job, his marriage. He wasn’t the worst hit.

On this list because: Sinha showed us the future of digitally conditioned,  dopamine-chasing response:

“Jarly can’t afford food but one of the first things he did after he moved in was to have a telephone line installed. Not a telephone, just the line. (‘Don’t need a phone. Don’t want buggers ringing me. All my mates are on-line. Just need a gateway to the net.’) On the tobacco-smogged wall, amid splots of insect gore and smeared crescents of some rich, dark stuff which surely can’t – or can it? – be shit, the socket gleams incongruously white. To most people it is something they unthinkingly plug a phone into – but to Jarly it is a gateway to heaven and to hell. Into it vanishes every penny that he can earn, borrow or claim in social security benefits. From it comes pleasure, knowledge, pain. It is a plastic vulva awaiting his modem jack, a hollow vein awaiting a needle, a synapse whose long copper nerve receives and transmits signals that connect Jarly’s brain to a vast and chaotic world of the imagination. Jarly’s real life is not ‘real’ but the life which is lived in the worlds to which this tiny hole in the wall leads.

[…] He has tried many times to stop, to break his modem habit. He’s tried everything he can think of but, lying on his narrow bed, he knows that sooner or later he will succumb to the whispering of the little mouth in the wall. He describes to me the self-hatred and sweetness of the inevitable moment of surrender, of giving in, letting go, of busy fingers conjuring a fix, the buzz of the modem coming to life, the whistle of connection sliding like a needle into his brain, and the rush of relief as he floats into the game.”

[Quote via a 1999 interview with Sinha on the WELL, another seminal BBS]

A jump forward in time:

3. The Trolls Among Us
by Mattathias Schwartz
New York Times, 3 Aug 2008

The New York Times meets Jason Fortuny of 4Chan.

Something about ]the suicide of] Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.

Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home.

On this list because: bullying, and trolling, and internet suicide. The depths of digital cruelty gained mainstream recognition around this point (2006-08), Megan Meier being another example.

But the bullying itself is not the turning point – just an old behaviour adopting new media. What was more interesting was the attention given to 4Chan, and /b/, and just how weird people could get when able to access communities of the like-minded. Around this time Anonymous were also coming into public consciousness, with Project Chanology against the Scientologists beginning January 2008.

The ethic of the lulz started to gain the oxygen of publicity – and we asked, was free speech really supposed to be used for this?

4.  The nym wars: how many identities is enough?

There’s not a story here, so much as a handful of events, and key articles.

In January 2011, Facebook deleted the account of Chinese dissident journalist Michael Asti, because “that wasn’t his real name”. In March, quoth Zuckerberg, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” And in July, Google Plus launched with a controversial “real names only” policy – and the storm broke.

Thus the “nym wars”, where  tech old-handers (and women) passionately defended the virtues of anonymity against the big tech companies who smelt a profit in identity services and targeted advertising. But more than that, it’s a turning point because at this point the general media and public had become comfortable enough with online space to accept it as “real” and part of daily life – and as such be quite amenable to Facebook/Google’s arguments that online behavioural norms should include connections to one’s offline and legal identity. In this way, there was definitely an aspect of the nymwars that was old internet vs. new.

So even without a defining personal case study, it’s an important topic to keep on this list. To quote a 1995 US Supreme Court ruling (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission). “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority”

As subsequent case studies indicate, it may not have long to last.

5. How Companies Learn Your Secrets
or, as Forbes retitled it, How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did
by Charles Duhigg
New York Times, 16 Feb 2012

On this list because: the moment where we realised just how up-close and personal Big Data was going to get – or rather, had already gotten.

6. The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine
by Walter Langelaar of moddr_ media lab, Rotterdam
introduced 9 March 2012

On this list because: it marks a growing public understanding that ‘social’ was starting to get too much. Too many frenemies, personal brands and social obligations. Too much sharing – too much noise. Too little control of our own data.

7. First Attack on A Cyborg
by Amara D. Angelica
KurzweilAI.net, 17 July 2012


Augmented reality pioneer Steve Mann visited a Parisian McDonald’s with his family in July 2012. Mann has a system called the EyeTap physically installed in his skull that records photos and video, and can display augmented reality data directly in his line of sight. Upon ordering a Chicken Ranch Wrap, the McDonald’s employees accosted Mann and tried to tear the glasses out of his head.

On this list with reference to Mark Hurst’s article today, The Google Glass feature no one is talking about (28 Feb). That is, a Glass prison of total peer surveillance, upload to the Google cloud, and facial recognition and tagging.

It is of course a fallacy to think we’ll be able to resist this brave new world simply through individual actions of evasion and opposition to people wearing Google Goggles – it’s far more systemic a problem than that. Nonetheless, without wanting to excuse the violence against Mann – this attack insists on standing for far more than its own specificity.


As do all these seven stories. There are more, I’m sure, which haven’t risen to mind this evening. Your suggestions and additions are welcome.