Tuesday, September 21, 2004


It is literally difficult to look into the face of our enemies. They prefer the shadows to obfuscate their identities, keeping safe their motives and true emotions. Terrorists who behead westerners in Iraq or the infanticidal fanatics of Beslan wrap their faces with ski masks, dark rags and the keffiyeh. Disjointed, monomaniacal armies that seek the West's destruction have in common the uniform of anonymity.

Sometimes terrorists hide by wearing the clothes and faces of those they wish to destroy. Palestinian suicide bombers blend in to get as close as they can to Israelis, before blowing them to bits. They dress as soldiers, or as Orthodox Jews. Some bombers have dressed as party girls, according to one account.

Closer to home, spammers, peer-to-peer file swappers, hackers, gamers and Web surfers largely prefer to go incognito. Many bloggers, including this one, prefer pseudonymous identities. Whole industries are now challenged by nameless warriors enabled by modern means of disruption. There's also anonymous dates, anonymous pornography, anonymous raves, anonymous flash mobs, anonymous chats, anonymous workers, anonymous shopping, anonymous customer support and anonymous poll-taking. Anonymity seems to be a rising star in neoteric culture---a kind of anti-celebrity in an age where celebrity has devolved into self-indulgent meaninglessness. Celebrity once represented the apogee of cultural power; but now the harsh x-ray spotlight only betrays human frailty---fodder for the circling sharks of our tabloid culture, but not the stuff of heroes.

Increasingly, 21st century power is projected from secret places. The Internet age has created a new kind of community, one where true identity is an option, like a costume party of assumed identities---the oxymoron of public anonymity. Behind the masks lies the safety of anonymity, but also strength. Perhaps anonymity enhances conviction, or perhaps persuasion. Anonymity is powerful because people can unbridle their passions and their true motivations without risk of disillusioning colleagues, friends and family.

Power has often been wielded from the strength of a leader's personality, for good or evil. Personality was often the driving force of great movements throughout history. Leadership from behind the mask risks the creation of cults more than great societies. Events appear to be driven by anonymous players in this age. In a sense, human communities are regrouping, and reforming along different cultural pathways than just ten years ago. Loyalties and interests are not as obviously connected to nation or to traditional identities.

The light that floods from the networks of anonymous communities has recently flooded the dark corners of the news media. Committed bloggers and their legions of empowered readers blew the roof off of Dan Rather's Big Lie. A campaign waged by regular citizens to expose media bias has been achieved at a grassroots level. The Delphi Effect does not require the force of personality; instead, the collective acumen and will of committed people focused on an issue and brought together on the Internet is now driving history's plough. It matters little where these people live, what nationality they are, or even if their names are known.

In contrast to the bright side of the Delphi Effect, the darkness from the network of anonymous communities comes from malevolent cults bent on destruction. For them, it also does not matter if their names are known. They are also committed people focused on an issue. While morally opposite from the bloggers who brought down Mr. Rather's empire of lies, the theater of action has similar aspects: Terrorists are decentralized, largely anonymous, and apply their collective acumen to the task of destroying their enemies, by whatever means. There is no moral equivalence between terrorists and bloggers, but it is worth seeing how both are skating around convention and accepted rules to challenge established authority.

The biggest threat facing the ordered world is a rogue nuclear attack. If carried out effectively, there will be no attribution---no return address on the bomb. The goal of the attacker would be to disrupt and destroy, so keeping the atrocity anonymous would be optimal. Our armies wear uniforms and fly planes with national insignia on them; our enemies strike out from indistinct places---nameless, anonymous and vicious. Perhaps one of the key aspects to asymmetrical warfare is that the rogue half of the equation be anonymous to be as effective as possible. Is there an immutable law at play here, a new meme?

Some questions that relate to anonymity:

1) Was Dan Rather brought down by a grassroots organization of citizens, or a cult? Define the difference.

2) Are anonymous driving forces a new phenomenon? Or are they to be found throughout history? Does the Internet create a new kind of anonymity, more empowered than before?

3) Are cultures created by high-tech networked communities changing our values as citizens of the country we live in? Are our allegiances diverging as a result?

4) Are terrorists, empowered by the age of telecommunications and the Internet, reflecting the same forces that are internally changing western culture? Stripping away the moral contrasts, does that leave us with a new set of rules that affects all of us?

5) Is public anonymity the new fame?

6) How much of your public life is anonymous?

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This essay is also posted at Winds of Change.