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The internet: a modern-day state of nature

April 15, 2011

Any of you that have ever read through the comments on disliked Youtube videos or browsed through the interminable internet forums of the world know just how unregulated of a place the internet can truly be.  Through the limitlessly-accesible chat rooms and online forums of the internet, we are all the same: black, white, male, female, poor, old, wealthy, racist, humanitarian, it doesn’t matter. As we hide behind the monitors of our respective screens, we recognize that the internet is the great equalizer, and we become people that we aren’t in real life, saying and doing things that we wouldn’t even dream of in the stark light of reality. I’m sure that anybody of my generation can understand what I mean when I say that the internet has the potential to degrade us to our baser, more carnal instincts by providing us a state of nature through which anything and everything can be done and said, and for the most part, done without fear of consequence.

Wikileaks, Anonymous, PirateBay, and so on and so forth: these sites and organizations that constantly spring up all over our newsfeeds are the salient physical (and digital) materializations of the state of nature manifested through the medium of the internet. Like Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature, there is no law in this wasteland of the internet (one of which is simultaneously barren and lush), and man on the internet has a natural right to do anything he wishes and anything he wills to preserve and advance his own life and satisfaction. The internet is a place where both like and oppositely-minded people can congregate together to spit out all the discriminatory diatribes and hate-filled vitriol that they have buried deep within the innermost sanctums of their hearts, a place where they can express their darkest thoughts and feelings without fear of consequences or retaliation.

What keeps many people from expressing intense emotions such as anger and frustration in real life is the fact they are known entities in a surprisingly small world. The anonymity of the Internet essentially levels the playing field for all participants, which could empower some users to express the darker sides of their personalities in ways that would be unthinkable in real life. The ability to post angry or mean-spirited thoughts without tangible consequences could prove to be too much of a temptation for certain personalities. While it could be argued that the anonymity of the Internet does not necessarily promote meanness or anger, it does allow users with the capacity for strong emotions to express them more easily, and with less regard for the consequences of their actions.

Whereas websites and programs such as PirateBay, Wikileaks, Limewire, and 4chan have reinforced in us the proof that even blatantly criminal or deviant organizations are difficult to regulate, and nigh-impossible to completely shut down, criminal cases such as the Armin Meiwes and Julien Barreaux trials have shown us that the internet truly is a place of the “… dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge.” There is no government in this wild, wild West, and every individual with a computer connected to the internet has a right to do all things that he wishes to do.

Does this characterization of the internet apply to all? Certainly not. Are there caveats to this illustration? Of course. The overwhelming population of individuals who utilize the internet on a daily basis use it for a purpose no more than to check their emails or to Google some information on their favorite indie band or the weather for the day. But there’s no denying that the darker side of the internet does exist, a place of which all can be at war against all if they so choose to, a pseudo-reality that is as close to a modern-day state of nature as there could possibly be. And it is in this alternate reality that faceless delinquents thrive, right down from the hackers, extortionists, and sexual deviants that populate the 5am underground internet chat rooms of the world, to the very you that is reading this post right now.

Members of the Anonymous organization

Further reading:

Ars Technica – Internet Security a Hobbesian State of Nature

Norm Pattis – Welcome to the State of Nature: Internet Violence

Alan Jacobs – The Online State of Nature

Jonathan He
University of Michigan

One Comment
  1. ellerm permalink
    April 16, 2011 3:01 PM

    This is one of the most applicable articles that I have read on this blog. It is applicable, of course, to the youth and, in my opinion, is out of the scope of he older generation’s understanding. In a way, i enjoy the state of nature, as I am young and can take advantage of one of the last frontiers of deregulation. The youth are in command on many sites. I also believe it shows the discrimination, hatred, and jadedness of everyday people. I can’t help but wonder if this is okay. If people couldn’t stream their prejudices into internet comments, would they express them in a more serious environment? Perhaps, if the internet was taken away, there would be no outlet for the state of nature within people.

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