FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Ugly Netizen

One might think that being wired (or wireless) would help keep us on our toes, and that being more connected would make us more empathetic. But just the opposite seems to be happening, as recent surveys suggest that technology enables people to be obnoxious, inconsiderate and downright vicious.

One study found that Americans regularly fail to use good cell phone and e-mail etiquette, doing things like talking loudly on phones, texting or answering the phone at inappropriate times, photographing strangers without their permission, using poor grammar when e-mailing, and passing along chain e-mails (a dangerous practice as well, as many of these can link to viruses, pornography or spyware).

Another study sponsored by Intel found that nearly 20% of 1,000 people surveyed admitted to being less punctual as a result of having a cell phone, relying on it to make excuses for being late or to cancel plans at the last minute.

The younger generation are exhibiting habits that are just as bad if not worse. The Pew Internet & American Life Project found large percentages of teens who admitted to saying things in text messages that they would not say to someone in person, and using IM buddy lists to form cliques and exclude others. Even worse, a UK survey found that 14% of teens admitted to being bullied or harassed via text messaging; teens also use digital camera to take and circulate embarrassing photos of others, and even document assaults. Unlike adults who do things with technology that are well meaning but ignorant, these kids use it as a weapon.

In one of the most unusual examples of digital life gone bad, a Chinese exchange student in Japan was recently arrested for creating bots that "mugged" characters in the online game Lineage II and stole their virtual possessions, which the man could then exchange for real cash. Unlike the characters in the game that are controlled by human players, the bots were programs that couldn't be beaten in the virtual world.

The Lineage II case is of concern because it's an omen of what could be the future of digital crime. "I regularly say that every form of theft and fraud in the real world will eventually be duplicated in cyberspace," says renowned cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier. "Perhaps every method of stealing real money will eventually be used to steal imaginary money, too."

Despite its immediacy, the physical distance afforded by technology creates a "buffer zone" behind which people feel safe, even when engaging in offensive behavior. Cyberspace makes denial easy, as we can compartmentalize our online behavior as "not real" and ending when we log off. But as we spend more and more of our time online, our digital behavior will have greater consequences.

The recent onslaught of new technology has given us unprecedented capabilities, but we haven't yet agreed as a society on appropriate use. Without boundaries, guidelines and a "digital ethic," even the most beneficial technology can bring out the worst in us.

Sources: Forbes.com, Telegraph, Smart Mobs, New Scientist