We all like to think that we can at any moment type in anything we want in a web browser and get some information on it. We can play games, watch movies, do research, and communicate with friends. From esoteric to illicit, most anything we could possibly want to know or do exists somewhere one the Web, just waiting for us to get off our butts and look it up.
But is it really so simple? Can we really do whatever we want online?
Noted American academic Lawrence Lessig says no. In fact, he proposes four constraints on behaviour in cyberspace.
- Law—Despite problems in how to go about enforcing laws in cyberspace, they do exist. They treat topics as diverse as copyright and child pornography, software piracy and user privacy. While we don’t often think about them, cyber-laws often dictate what we can and cannot do online.
- Social norms—We all know that there are certain things you just don’t do online. Or if you do them, you don’t talk about them. For example, while pornography is technically not illegal, it is frowned upon by a large portion of society. Downloading music is not yet illegal in Canada, but it’s not exactly de rigeur nowadays, either. The force of society’s disapproval is often enough for people to avoid doing certain things online, even if they couldn’t technically get in trouble for them.
- Market—It’s a fact of life that money talks, and it has a large effect on what we can do online. If you can’t afford Internet access, it’s obvious that the market has prevented you from doing as you wish in cyberspace. But what if you have access, but not the means to pay for, say, your own domain name, or some upgraded service, or even for Internet access that has more bandwidth than dial-up? You obviously can’t do everything you want if you don’t have the money to pay for it.
- Architecture—Another thing people rarely think about is the architecture of the Internet. Lessig looks at computer code as a type of architecture that constrains behaviour. This is mostly to say that the way in which the Internet is designed limits what we can do. For example, you can’t read my email because you don’t know the password to my account.
Looks like cyberspace isn’t as free as we thought.
It’s my contention that these four constraints also apply to online identity. Laws regarding copyright and intellectual property ensure that we can’t pass of the work of others as our own. We must therefore build authority online through our own thoughts and ideas, and through careful citation of other people’s work. Social norms dictate that it is bad form to get caught passing online. Online friends may feel betrayed or uncomfortable to learn that you are not who you say you are. It’s also considered distasteful to look at illicit materials on the Internet, and to do so creates a negative association with one’s online identity. The market may determine the formation of your online identity, such as with Second Life, where it costs real money to customize one’s avatar. The architecture of the Internet ensures that only certain identities are possible. Consider creating an online profile where you have to select your gender. You’re given the choice of “male” or “female” but what if you don’t identify with either one of those?
This is all to say that the Internet itself affects who we are and who we can become online.
Maybe all those science fiction films are right. Maybe computers really are taking over.
After all, they’re creating us just as much as we’re creating them.