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The Social Contract, the Internet, and You

November 8, 2010

In the current age of the Internet, I feel it safe to say that every user of the Internet has encountered in cyberspace some form of the state of nature and social contract, be it Hobbes’s, Locke’s, Rousseau’s, or any of the other forms of these concepts which we may or may not have covered.

“But Mike,” you ask, “How could you possibly know that about what I do on the Internet?” Well, unless you’re one of  the few silly people in lecture still not using MWireless on your laptops, I can’t totally know. I can, however, make assumptions that at some point in your moonlight careers as extreme web-surfers you’ve encountered at least one of the following:

  • Online chat rooms
  • Web forums
  • Internet game servers
  • Collaborative blogs

These aren’t all of the possible ways of encountering social contract principles on the internet, but they’re the most prominent ones and are sufficient for helping me prove my point.

This player decides to ruin the game for others.

Now, these four mediums of communication and interaction over the Internet (“the mediums”) can exist either as states of nature or as (relatively) civilized societies. The former is generally composed of chat rooms and game servers, wherein users may interact without any restraints aside from those which are specific to the medium in question. Users may treat each other as they wish within these mediums and need not fear any sort of punishment from a higher power, and rather only need to worry about the actions of their fellow users. This kind of virtual state of nature can lead to spam, “griefing” (see above-right), and rudeness, but does not remove entirely the element of people who might not wish ill upon others and instead are compassionate; that is to say, Rousseau’s state of nature isn’t completely unrepresented in cyberspace, but it’d be silly to not say that Hobbes’s version of state of nature is far more prevalent.

Unfortunately for these two, there
are no Cyber Police.

As for the social contract, that concept can exist in any of the four mediums I listed earlier, and while the virtual state of nature was ruled by the ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau, the Internet’s version of the social contract is under complete Locke-down. Locke’s theory revolves around the need for people to protect their property, which is threatened most when in the state of nature due to the unreliability of the laws of nature. In terms of the Internet, our “property” is comprised of our feelings, self-esteem, and piece of mind, and the laws of nature are laws of the real world (“meatspace”) which pertain to the Internet but are often difficult or impossible to enforce in any meaningful capacity, allowing for bullying and other forms of abuse. In response to this, netizens seem to forgo the conventions of meatspace law and take it upon themselves to seek out or form their own virtual societies on the web, wherein a site’s owner or webmaster establishes the laws for that particular site, and enlists the aid of other users to act as moderators to police the site and enforce its rules. The users of the site then in turn choose whether or not to consent to the rule of the webmaster and site staff, be it explicitly (ex. Agreeing to the TOS (Terms of Service), paying a fee,) or tacitly (ex. being a site member, using site services.) With these rules and enforcement mechanisms in place, the “property” of the users is protected and those who wish to damage the property of others are punished (read: warned, banned, etc.) If the users of a site ever feel that the webmaster and moderating force does not adequately address their needs, the users have the choice of voicing their concerns to the webmaster or abandoning the site in favor of another which does suit their needs, effectively revolting against their previous governing force and starting over anew. While it’s not an exact translation of Locke’s ideas of the civilized society, the logistics and limitations of user interaction on the Internet simply doesn’t make it possible.

With all this is mind, one should now be able to more easily see the distinctions between the parts of the Internet that exist as a state of nature and those parts which have entered a social contract and became (relatively) civilized societies. Once this understanding is formed, one’s web surfing experiences can take on whole new meanings and offer greater insight to how a virtual society operates.

  1. Zac Hiller permalink
    November 9, 2010 12:00 AM

    Really liked the post. Good use of pictures. Just thought its funny how you have collaborative blog as one of the four ways and every person that is reading your blog is currently using a collaborative blog. I also liked how you discussed the terms of “terms of service “and protecting the “property of users. I know I never actually read into those things and usually just click “accept” but now understand what their there for and how they relate to Locke’s theory. Their truly is a “locke down” within the internet.

  2. whitneyspain permalink
    November 9, 2010 11:34 PM

    I liked the point that you made about the social contract of the internet being a Locke-down. As Zac mentioned, I too liked how you brought up the “terms of service” agreement that most of us can say ,we just click accept in order to advance to the next page. An issue that you didn’t touch on that I feel is like a social contract, is that whatever we put on the internet, belongs to which ever site we put it on. Im sure that this rule is mentioned in the agreement part that we skip over. For example, what ever comments that are made on facebook, or what ever pictures a person uploads to facebook,is now facebooks’ property.It no longer belongs to us. Once something is in writing, you can’t take it back. The internet gives a whole new meaning of Locke-down in terms of what belongs to whom.

    • January 16, 2011 8:49 AM

      Hi, with apolgies to the writer of the post with whom I have never interacted, and therefore feel slightly rude going straight to disagreement with one of contributors/commenters, critics, I have to disagree with whitneyspain (like the name, very amusing), that a comment left on Facebook becomes Facebook’s property and cannot be retracted or taken back.

      I think the idea of service is important. Service implies involvement and responsibility, and not just setting up a facility (in this case a website). I think if someone asks for something they have written to be removed, it should be removed at their request. otherwise perhaps we need to start talking and writing with precision in contracts more about terms of use than terms of service.

      It is possible to set up a website which allows self-editing and the user’s removal of their own comments. I have seen and participated in such sites. Since it might be thought impractical to open the floodgates to people wanting to have their own material removed, I think that all sites should be set up to give the user control and ultimate ownership of their own material.

      I would assume that, for legal reasons, the provider and operator of the site would be required to keep all logs of both original activity and changes.

      I think to accept the signing over of your right to control of your own output assumes an acceptance of the belief that the people to whom we relinquish that right are more responsible and ethical than we are ourselves and therefore the decisive power should obviously rest with them. This is obviously not the case, just because they happen to run a forum, and I think it is a mistake to accept that once something is written we no longer have power over it. That is too damning, sometimes with real consequences, for the author.

      • January 16, 2011 8:57 AM

        I think this would bring more humanity back into our communications. Being able to delete a comment is the electronic equivalent of being able to say ‘I’m sorry’ sometimes, and make sure that what was said can’t do further damage to anyone by being left there. I wonder if perhaps people would be less combative and more open to reason if they had that power over their own communications. Otherwise sometimes it seems pointless to try to be reasonable. People fight because things are in print, on an mp3 or mp4 and there is an audience expectation that it should be there so a lot goes underground and there are real victims. It seems the greater the physical distance, in the electronic world, the more fierce the war and the greater the surveillance and obsessiveness.

  3. Alexis Biaggi permalink
    December 1, 2010 10:41 PM

    I thought you made a very interesting connection between Hobbes’s state of war theory and what we frequently encounter on the Internet. I particularly enjoyed it because I believe it is through modern day examples where we are best able to understand some of the theories presented throughout this course. I have a particular interest in Hobbes belief that in the state of nature life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Critics of Hobbesian theory seem to classify his believes as purely pessimistic regarding his moral order of nature and absolutist based on his belief in the wickedness of man and thus the necessity of complete obedience to authority. This well-known concept, among many proposed by early political thinkers, manifests itself in the Iraq War. I think inspecting this current event in relation to Hobbes ideas may allow us to reexamine this overgeneralization.
    The Iraq war has been described as “Hobbes’s jungle”, a “Hobbesian war of all against all”, and even a “Hobbesian nightmare.” However, what do these statements really mean? First off, Hobbes believes that when there is a lack of power, or in this case a lack of control, the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest will surge forward, as a kind of voracious free-for-all. This statement directly corresponds to the fighting going on overseas. Hobbes description of the state of war is shown to be true based on the brutality and inhumane practices being reported in Iraq. It is almost as if soldiers in Iraq, from both sides, are catching a glimpse of what life would be like in what Hobbes describes is the state of nature. Hobbes explains, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death.” In many ways we can see this manifested in the fighting because the moral and compassionate aspect of human beings are lost. The Iraq war demonstrates a certain lack of honor and justice, instead replaced by doing whatever is necessary to satisfy one’s appetites and desires. Through reading about what is occurring in Iraq, I can’t help but somewhat agree with Hobbes “pessimistic” and “absolutist” view of human nature.

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