Life as an Extreme Sport

as easy to make war as to make love, without considering the consequences

Many years ago, it was very unusual to see me without sunglasses on. Specifically, mirrored and reflective sunglasses that ideally wrapped around and covered my eyes, completely. I would reluctantly take them off indoors if I had to, and my penchant for wearing them day or night left me open to many Corey Hart-related comments.

Flipping through April’s issue of Discover magazine, I’ve come across an explanation for the behaviour that maps well onto my own insights into my character at the time, and it’s from an interesting source: Philip Zimbardo. You might recognize this name; he’s the social psychologist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. He has spent the time since making his career on the study and its fallout, and talking about what it means to be evil, and where is that line between being good and being, well, not.

According to him, part of that line is when we deindividuate one another, and transform our character into that which we are not, through the use of props, uniforms and actions. They specifically used mirrored, reflective sunglasses in the experiment because of their ability to hide the eyes, and the power it gave the “guards” to hide their reactions, maintain impassivity, and the powerlessness it gave the “prisoners”, who were missing the very natural and normal interaction and ability to see facial expression and mood modulation via the eyes.

Reflective, mirrored sunglasses as a way of securing a small bit of power in a situation – that sounds like the person I was those many, many moons ago.

But interestingly, I think that Zimbardo’s comments about deindividualization is applicable quite a bit more broadly than he might necessarily realize, or be applying it. His interest, of course, is prison/guard binary scenarios; he was most recently spending quite a lot of time talking about Abu Ghraib, for obvious reasons. But take this following statement, from the magazine:

Situational forces mount in power with the introduction of uniforms, costumes, and masks, all disguises of one’s usual appearance that promote anonymity and reduce personal accountability. When people feel anonymous in a situation, as if no one ia aware of their true identity (and thus no one probably cares), they can move more easily to be induced to behave in antisocial ways.

Remind you of anything – say, the internet? This is, I believe, one of the reasons we have people like O’Reilly advocating a code of ethics or behaviour for bloggers – a hopeful, but ultimately misguided notion. And it’s misguided for the very quote above: so you ban anonymous comments in the hope to force people into more civil discourse. What, then, prevents someone from creating an alter-ego online, someone who can do and say whatever because it’s not tied to “who they really are”? Absolutely nothing, save the hope for honesty. I feel pretty confident saying that if someone is going to be a twit anonymously, they’re going to be a twit with a false name that gives them the same anonymity as the anonymous username will.

The internet has been celebrated for being a place where you can escape the constraints of whatever social injustice you feel is perpetrated on you in, as my former adviser would have called it, meatspace. You can become whomever you want, leave your limitations behind, explore being whomever you dream of or desire being. And in some cases that might be a very good thing, but in others it’s not – and there’s no real way to balance the extremes, or at least to force people to balance those extremes, because it is built into the very nature of the medium.

People will always take advantage of the medium – any medium – to express their antisocial behaviour, if they’re so inclined. If we’re going to reduce the antisocial behaviour of the internet, we need to figure out a way to reindividuate people – and while the goal behind a code of behaviour is, indeed, noble, it’s not going to succeed in curing the problem it’s attempting to address.