The Social Contract, the Internet, and You
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.