Category Archives: Networks

The New Observer

The recent discussions around the NSA and other agencies spying on internet users can teach us one thing: We do not yet live in the next society. What we can observe in the discussions and the arguments brought forth by all sides is a social process of negotiation leading to, in one way or another, new structures and new cultures. These are labor pains of the next society, and it does not look like it will be an easy birth.
Without knowing if and by who one is observed when using any internet-based service, the nondescript “agencies” fall together into a hazy context of a new omnipotent, god-like observer. This new context encompasses the entire web use, a very rare example of actors having to rethink the entire basis of their actions.

Above other things, this negotiation is a struggle between the seemingly free culture of the web as we knew it on the one side, which allowed for experimental constructions of identity, and established concepts of personhood and accountability on the other. The latter is the essential precondition for the functioning of legal and executive systems anywhere in the world. They need the ability to hold persons accountable for any action that can be attributed to them, and so the more experimental constructions of identity on the web do not fit their view of the world. Online, one has to live with, for example, new forms of gender or the fast-paced and sometimes short-lived plateaus of opinions, which, in the absence of physical interaction, can potentially be stronger than on the street. From the position of present-day governments, all of this has to be somehow mapped to citizens, subjects of states, to bring it within the reach of law enforcement.

One of the main arguments against this state-sanctioned mapping of identities to persons is that so far, social innovation in online media has many times originated in services and functions where users were able to construct their identities from nothing, starting with the clean slate of a new user account (Peter Leppelt has for example pointed this out in a newspaper article in August 2012). These were the fertile plains of new art and social experiments, and it remains to be seen how their users will deal with the presence of a new god-observer who, whenever it pleases, has the ability to map anything done online to a person they can hold accountable. Notably, this mapping of action to person lies in the sole discretion of the agencies, which as of now have not exhibited a healthy willingness to subdue themselves to pluralistic supervision and control. In any case, the result of the current negotiation / struggle will have a profound effect on the further evolution of the next society. Even though the web may never have been fully free, as it was subjected to military and later commercial interests throughout its history, the fact that its users now have to count in an omnipotent observer whenever they use any of its services, public or private, changes how these services are viewed and used.