Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Is there such a thing as too much freedom? We may find out on the Internet

What would you do if you could do anything? What would you say if you knew you wouldn’t be held accountable for your words?

It’s an old question. Older than the Internet, older than the telephone – it’s actually one of the fundamental questions of human ethics. Do people act morally because of something in their character, or do they act morally because they fear the consequences?

Plato explored the question with a rhetorical device called the Ring of Gyges, a magic ring that could make the wearer invisible. Plato’s idea has inspired hundreds of books and movies and now, with the Internet, we’ve had a chance to test it for real.

The anonymity of the Internet enables all kinds of destructive behavior: cheating spouses on message boards, sexual predators on MySpace, con artists and snake oil salesmen on eBay.

It’s gotten so bad, some people say it’s not worth it. Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Should the government step in and protect us from ourselves?
Michael Duff

The Internet presents a unique challenge to our society because freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Freedom requires responsibility, and every time something new is invented we end up with a whole new set of things to be responsible for.

Imagine how scary the automobile was for a society of people who spent their lives traveling at one horse power. Consider how much responsibility it takes to drive safely on public roads. Stare too long at traffic statistics and you might start longing for the horse and buggy days.

Imagine how scary the first musket was to people who were used to swords. Six centuries later and people are still trying to take guns away from us.

Is the Internet really that different?

I think we’re still at the horse-and-buggy phase of Internet culture.

The current Internet is our Wild West of communication.

I think that eventually the government will step in and tame the place.

We’ll gain a little safety, lose a little freedom, and all we’ll have left is stories contrived from vague memories passed on to us from our fathers and mothers.

Old-timers will tell of a place where a person could say anything, and every man was responsible for himself.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

June 1, 2007 at 15:18

Posted in Columns, Politics

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