I heard a speaker recently (he wants to remain anonymous) argue that because the Internet makes public our every regrettable photo and expression, we will see each other at our worst, and thus the Internet — and then the real-world social world — will become a Hobbesian struggle of self-centered individuals in a war of all against all. Nasty, brutish, short, and did I mention nasty?
Since my overall mantra is “The Internet is more of everything,” I want to say, yes, that’s true, but it will also become more Rousseauian: more collaborative and sweet. But I do have hope that the sweetness born will be greater than the nastiness unleashed. And that’s for two reasons.
First, there are reasons to think that the raw exposure of sins and self-embarrassments at Facebook and other such sites won’t have a directly proportional effect on the quotient of nastiness. It will certainly provide a greater trove for those who are intent in wreaking havoc on people, such as political operatives doing opposition research. But, society has a tradition of drawing lines of privacy based not on what we can physically perceive but on what we’re allowed to notice. In polite society, you can’t say “Who cut one?” no matter how bad the smell, and there are actual laws against peering into windows even when the shades are left open. So, we can expect that as we get used to the new opportunities for invading privacy, we’ll develop norms that rope off some areas and some topics so that even if we happen to have looked down the social media blouse of the woman next to us, we’re not allowed to comment on what we saw.
Second, we generally don’t like the Hobbesian world. Neither did Hobbes. The state of nature he describes is so awful that, he says, it motivates humans to form societies and governments. Now, those who think they can win in the war of all against all may insist on acting in a nasty, selfish way, but we hem them in because they are dangerously assaholic. And there are times when it’s fun to be in the tussle, but we hem in those times and places, and try to lower the consequences. The fact we generally and deeply prefer a sweetly collaborative world to one in which everyone is trying to steal everyone else’s bread is a pretty good reason for hope that we will tend towards the sweet, with unfortunate and inevitable outbreaks of the nasty. As ever.