Infinite Loop 17: “Gyges Goes Surfing (Being Part Two of “The Mac Web as Therapy.”)”

I have been talking for some time
about the Web’s ability to break down barriers,
namely interpersonal barriers. I mentioned this
in the first part of this article series “The
Mac Web as Therapy.
” And I have continued
to think about it since then. I am just a soul
looking for answers to the many questions I have.
One question is, “Why does the Web seem to
affect people like this?


Here is why I ask: It seems paradoxical
to me that the Web appears to produce these states.
The Web, by its nature, seems to consist in everything
that is the opposite of trust, honesty, and intimacy.
Yet it appears to produce just these states. I
am confused about this frankly. I want to understand


I have said in previous articles
that my data for this is my email. If you write
on the Web, or at least write about the kinds
of things I write about, then you know what I
am talking about – – people open up to you. I
will break no confidences here, but trust me it
happens. It is a great responsibility that is
thrust upon us as writers when people open up
to us like they do. We guard it carefully. But
it does happen.


In the first part of this series
I said that the Web seems to produce a therapeutic
environment. I said that defenses break down on
the Web and people share their thoughts and lives.
This is a therapeutic environment, and that is
also what I mean about the Web producing trust,
intimacy, and honesty. These are stuff therapy
is made of, after all.


So why does this seem
to happen?


Immediately I think of an answer:
The trust, honesty and intimacy one sees on the
Web is more appearance than reality. It looks
like these states are produced, but looks can
be deceiving. The trust, honesty and intimacy
we see on the Web are really other states disguised
as these, someone might argue. It doesn’t really
matter what these other states are; and in fact
they would be hard to describe. The best way to
describe them might be to call them “mock”
states – – states that mimic other states.


However, there is a way to answer
this. Trust, intimacy and honesty, by my lights
anyway, come in degrees. What I could be misreading
is the degree to which these are shown on the
Web. And indeed, there is point to this: But
a low degree of trust is still trust, and so the
point still stands
. The highest degrees of
trust, honesty and intimacy cannot be produced
on the Web. That is obvious. One would not ask
for another’s hand in marriage if the only contact
he had with was in email, for example. (I do not
doubt that someone has done this someplace though!)
Thus the data is clear: Some degree of these states
are produced on the Web.


I think the clue to our answer lies
in the as it is told in Plato’s Republic.
Glaucon, Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue,
is trying to support the following proposition:
The only reason people act morally is through
fear of getting caught. When we ask, “Why
be moral?” the answer, Glaucon says, is because
of societal pressures. This is the only constraint
we have. So the good itself, the moral itself,
has no power over us. Morality is powerless against
human nature, he argues.


He tries to support this with a
thought experiment working off the myth of Gyges.
Gyges found a ring which made him invisible. He
used it to seduce the king’s wife and kill the
king. He couldn’t get caught because he was invisible.
So Glaucon says that if there were two such rings
and one was given to the moral person and one
to the immoral person, both would act immorally.
The reason is because all social constraint would
be absent. So it follows that people are moral
only out of fear of being caught, and so morality
itself is powerless.


While I do not agree with Glaucon’s
position I think the thought experiment itself
is telling. That is, I think this kind of thought
experiment explains much of what we find on the
Web. Let me explain.


The first example Gyges’ myth explains
is “flaming”
another in email. By this I mean sending
an email in which you say something to someone
you would never say to his face: You write
insults, swears, threats, and various other kinds
of put-downs. Some of these can be very mean indeed.
I have been the victim of it once when a group
of evil-natured Wintel users didn’t exactly take
well to something I wrote. And let me tell you
this: They can be nasty, very nasty. But I am
sure that if they could not hide behind the Gyges’
ring of the Internet they would not act like this,
or at least some would not. They won’t be punched
in the nose if they make a threat via email and
so they feel safe in their threats. People, Wintel
users or not, feel safe behind the Gyges’ ring
of the Internet to the point that their true natures
show clearly. Is it not clear then that some such
threats and insults issue from a cowardly nature?


This is what the Gyges’ ring of
the Internet creates – a buffer zone behind which
one hides from the real consequences of his actions
and words. We see it in all kinds of ways, and
not just in emails. Opinion pieces and other kinds
of attack articles on the Mac Web evidence this.
Web writers are a strange breed (I am a writer
so I can say this): Some (not all) writers take
something that provides them with anonymity and
invisibility and attempt to use it for fame and
visibility. Yet they mistakenly think they can
control the degree to which they reveal themselves
through their writings. Writers often do not realize
what all they reveal about themselves in their
writings. I would argue that one
cannot control what he reveals about himself in
his writings no matter how hard he tries
to disguise himself. In fact, his trying not to
reveal too much will itself be revealed in his
writings. It is the nature of the medium that
one lays himself out for all to see, no matter
how he tries to control this.


And herein lies the paradox of this
state of affairs in my mind: The invisibility
the Web offers actually makes one’s nature and
character more visible than it would be otherwise,
just like a ring which makes one invisible. Flames
and attack articles reveal cowardly and petty
natures which might lie hidden otherwise. One
uses the opportunity of being invisible which
the Web offers and becomes more visible in the
process, be it in an email or a column. And sending
something anonymously does not help, for something
is still revealed about someone, and the use of
anonymous methods itself is revealing, is it not?


Let me get back to the original
point though . . .


What I have just described is the
darker side of the Gyges’ ring of the Web. It
has a brighter side too. For herein too lies the
clue to the therapeutic environment the Web provides.
Invisibility brings a degree of safety in which
one can make himself more visible – – where he
can “open up,” as it were. If one is
less afraid of being punched in the nose because
of the Web’s buffer zone, then one is likewise
less afraid of being laughed at, poked fun at,
and being rejected as well. These are necessary
requirements for any successful therapy. True,
one may still suffer from these reactions even
on the Web. But they are most of the time outside
of one’s perceptual horizon and what lays outside
of one’s perceptual horizon might as well not


The Gyges’ ring of the Web also
explains the trust, honesty and intimacy we see
sometimes on the Web. And this reveals an even
greater paradox. These states seem to require
exactly what the web cannot provide: Closeness
and sharing of selves. These, we think, cannot
occur when space and time intervene. The Web places
a wedge of space and time between egos. Even instant
messaging is not as ‘instant’ as talking with
another face-to-face. Moreover, closeness and
sharing are the preconditions for trust, intimacy
and honesty. It follows that the Web shouldn’t
produce them.

Yet if I am right about the Gygesian
effects of the Web on egos then the complete opposite
is the case: Barriers of space and time, the cloak
of the Web, actually allow for spontaneous sharing
and closeness thus producing occasions for trust,
intimacy and honesty. Some people just feel safer
on the Web. It does not hold for every token of
Web communication or for every person, but it
holds. Maybe then trust, and all the states I
have talked about here are broader than we think.

[Note: Lovers have shared their
hearts through words in mail for centuries. The
Web is just a new way to do this, so maybe the
Web is just an instance of this very old truth,
an old truth which is not more pervasive than
it ever has been.]


In other words, one effect of web
technology may be that we need to rethink our
ideas of closeness, intimacy, trust, honesty,
and the conditions of the same. Perhaps these
notions need to be expanded beyond the common
sense notions we have. Perhaps communication on
the Web is producing a culture of Platonists in
which the physical is diminished and sharing occurs
between souls which are not constrained by space,
time, or spatial localization, anymore than the
ideas they share are so constrained. Maybe as
we relate through language alone over the Web
people will be less Objects and more Subjects.
But it remains to be seen. At least it could have
this effect if we think about it . . .


Postscript: Let me quickly add this
point: If people were not seeking trust, closeness,
and the rest, the Web would not provide opportunities
for them. Perhaps people seek these on the Web
because they fail to find them in other places.
That is, it seems there are a lot of lonely people
out there. It appears that there are people out
there who believe they feel disconnected from
others and try to connect on the Web. This is
not only sad but dangerous, especially if that
person is a child who seeks closeness in chat
rooms and email exchanges. So
parents take note: If you don’t do your job the
Web is more than happy to do it for you, along
with its predators and various cacophiles and

I am preparing another article on
this topic which attempts to make clear the ways
we try to make ourselves visible on the Web while
at the same time trying to hide. Or, to put a
finer point on it, the ways we try to make a projection
of ourselves which is not identical to ourselves
visible on the Web. : )

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