The question of transparency and authenticity is of utmost importance in a realm where the communication is mediated by, and the information is stored in, technological, digital media. The nature of the virtual realm of the cyberspace as another realm of reality is, by definition, diverse from that of the actual realm of spacetime. Pierre Lévy (Lévy, 1995) considers that virtual is not opposed to real, because the former is contingent of the later, it exists as a possibility, like a tree is the virtual outcome of a seed or a sapling, therefore what is opposed to virtual is actual. In that sense, virtual and actual are states of being. Given that definition, the features we can identify in the virtual are related to the features we find in the actual realm, but assuming different states and proportions. I asserted in a different post that the actual realm is humanized, since human beings didn’t create it but we had to evolve and adapt as a species to the conditions we couldn’t control, at the same time we made our best to adapt the environment we were in to suit our purposes. In contrast, the virtual realm is different in that it is fully and totally human: humans created it (and are continuously doing so) from scratch out of their own creativity, intellect and interest, in patters that reflect different concerns than those in the actual world. Nevertheless, the two are more and more intertwined and interwoven, and there is an increasing tension due to the need to combine the characteristics of the two realms in such a way that the fabric of the society, based in millennia of evolution of social models, balances of power, economy, ethics and religions isn’t disrupted.
One of the features that characterize the virtual realm is the uniqueness of its informational nature. The cyberspace is a realm of data, of zeros and ones transmitted at increasingly high speeds between entities in an increasingly complex mesh of networks, stored in databases and servers all over the globe, in a chaotic fashion that isn’t limited by geopolitical barriers in the realm of actual spacetime. Information exists and is created at every moment as data in a redundant way, and much of it is accessible to the world at large, with close to none constraints. The same author (Lévy, 2000) tells us about the information flood that threatens to submerge us and the need to build our own “ark” and learn to navigate on that monstrous sea. That leads us to two concepts of utmost importance: authenticity and transparency.
Authenticity is defined in the Free Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as, among other definitions, something that is “not false or imitation”. In fact, the chaotic and distributed nature of the Internet makes it easy for everyone to create content. Weblogs, social media, institutional or private websites, repositories of information (academic / research, news archives, etc.), all of them are accessible to a scale so big that no single individual can possibly keep track of it. Therefore, we are forced to rely in second-hand information, be it shared by someone of gathered through technological means, how can we possibly assess the validity, the authenticity of the information?
Related to that concept is transparency, which is defined in the same dictionary as “the quality or state of being transparent”, that in turn is (among others) defined as “free from pretense or deceit”. Let’s consider the human nature for an instant. The evolution of humanity is, when everything is done and said, based in deceit, pretense and general lies. It’s an evolutionary perk that contributed to the survival of the fittest, and was to a point subjugated by social ethics and moral systems.
As I mentioned before, the virtual realm is different in the sense that certain features of the actual realm assume different proportions. In this particular case, the millennia of development of social ethics and morals seems hard to translate in the virtual realm, because the technological mediation of communication / information creates a layer that is often perceived as a barrier that can protect identities and thus validate behaviors that would be unacceptable in the actual realm. Carl Jung (Jacobi, 1995) argues that the human being creates different personas to face different situations, and these personas appear “as a consciously created personality or identity fashioned out of part of the collective psyche through socialization, acculturation and experience”. He relates them to masks (and that is the etymology of the Latin term, the masks used in theatre) which are perceived as “a compromise between the individual and society as to what a man should appear to be” (Jung, 1971). This implies that lies, deceive and general mischief are only natural, but the social fabric is kept together in part with the balance of those behaviours so as to minimize their impact in the whole of society. But those social constraints are less likely to happen on the Internet, and the personas appear to be experiencing a kind of freedom not seen out of it. Classical examples are the phenomena of widespread piracy of copyrighted content and the freedom of speech provided by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which in many cases is only apparent. And, of course, lets not forget plagiarism and stealing of identity.
These two phenomena are, indeed, examples of situations that, we could argue, always existed, but have experienced a real growth due to the overabundance and easy access of information, often personal, on the Internet. With the growth of the Internet and virtualization of many areas of our lives, those are threats to the coherence of the virtual realm that need to be tackled in order to ensure the confidence of the institutions and users and the validity of the system as a whole. Many technologies have been developed, such as password protection, CAPTCHAs, activation of accounts by phone or text messages, but they focus only on one part of the problem, that of allowing access to someone to a certain resource, assuming the owner of the correct credential is the person who says he/she is. That, of course, relies eavily in ethics, since there is no way to really know who is logging in to a given service. Another approach to identity check, which has been developing in the past years, is the application of semantic analysis to social networks and other kinds of websites such as repositories using advanced artificial intelligence algorithms to build profiles based on style patterns that allow for the identification of the unique writing characteristics of people.
In a nutshell we could say the cyberspace faces challenges similar to those experienced in the actual world, but while society in the actual realm developed strategies to cope with them in an effective manner through millennia of evolution thus balancing them and minimizing their bad effects to the society itself, the cyberspace is still a brave new world, a kind of borderland where the balance between rules and the amplification of the personas caused by an extra layer that separates the individual is yet to be achieved. It seems to me, therefore, that although technological advances are being made, ethics are still the main weight that plays in favor of authenticity and transparency.
Jolande Székács Jacobi, Masks of the Soul. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977; Robert H. Hopcke, Persona. Berkeley: Shambhala Publications, 1995.
Lévy, Pierre (1995) Qu’est-ce que le virtuel? La Decouverte:Paris.
Lévy, Pierre (2001) Cyberculture, trans. Robert Bononno Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press.