Ressentiment, the Internet, and the Cloak of Invisibility
At last weekend's privacy conference, Martha Nussbaum described in vivid terms the objectification of women by men acting anonymously on the internet. This was not a simple argument that men look at porn and fantasize a level of control they will never achieve legally in the real world. Instead she (and Brian Leiter and others) described the systematized targeting of individual woman in "cyber cesspools," complete with engineered images of rape and sodomy of the target, exhortations to molest and kill, revelation of personal addresses and social security numbers, and cybertrespasses designed to erase the target's web presence. This is not only control and objectification in fantasy (which is bad enough but usually not actionable), but control, objectification, and psychic rape in the real world.
Most interestingly, Martha exposed much of the motivation of the wrongdoers as a species of ressentiment explored by Nietzche, an attempt by the powerless and resentful to wrest control from the strong whom they envy and fear. It is no surprise that the worst abuses described at the conference were perpetrated against successful women who would be likely to prevail in an open contest of wits. Only anonymous rumour can bring them down. Think of the arch-example of ressentiment: James Claggart whose envy and distorted desire for Billy Budd leads to his whispered lies about Billy's involvement in mutiny.
Consensus seemed to emerge that legal remedies
for invasion of privacy, defamation, tresspass, and sexual harrassment
on the internet could reach the worst abuses, but many panelists
expressed frustration that the anonymous nature of internet effectively
prevented the enforcement of legal rules. The "right" to communicate
anonymously lies at the heart of the problem. But where does this
right come from? Not the law . . . we have no legal intuition that
it's okay to commit crimes and torts as long as we do so anonymously.
Nor do we see a right to use any other mass media anonymously. Can you
go to your local radio or television station and demand to broadcast
your most craven thougts anonymously? What's different about the
The web's architecture is what's different. To borrow from Larry Lessig's emphasis on structure, anonymity is built into its very code. Those who realized the web saw a chance to overthrow existing authority, existing hierarchies of power. A glorious treasure trove beckoned just within their reach . . . including the seductive cloak of anonymity. Thousands of coders chained to their terminals plotted a slave revolt. They grabbed power their masters could not see; they claimed the power to be invisible.
I don't accuse them of being misogynistic or evil, but the architects of the web were overwhelmingly men and they were outcasts of a sort, famed for their anti-social nature and devotion to the arcana of code. Bill Gates and Steven Jobs would make millions while they sat in their cubicles for days on end, stealing precious minutes to play in their virtual world. I don't blame them for revolting, for conferring upon themselves and later comers the ability to take down the mighty with a few anonymous keystrokes. But there is no reason not to speak the truth, not to identify the profound ressentiment at the foundation for the architecture, now accepted as immutable, of the most powerful information resource known to humankind.
Larry speaks of an identity layer that might be added to the web, the possibility to be pseudonymous, yet traceable in greatest need. Perhaps a layer of light will shine forth and scatter the ravening clusters of pale skulking creatures back into the darkest corners of our subconscious. Frodo's ring must be thrown back into Mt. Doom.