News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Internet, Pseudonyms and the Struggle for Self

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Internet, Pseudonyms and the Struggle for Self

One of the more provocative investigations of the strengths and weaknesses of the blogosphere as a political forum, not to mention as a "place" for human interaction comes from Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus wrote the provocative book, What Computers Still Can't Do. He takes up his argument from there and applies it to the Internet in his essay, Kierkegaard on the Super Information Highway. ...

One of his main points with regard to the Internet is that it is an abstract space. Something that seems to be here, there, and everywhere. For Dreyfus, at least, this gives an illusion of personhood that denies what it is that makes us human. That is, character, personality, and sense of who we are must come from being situated in a body in a time/place that involves all those problems/obstacles that being in a body is susceptible to. By giving the illusion that all these things can be overcome via an abstract space gives us a false sense of who we are.

In relationship to political dialog and interaction, the same problems apply. It's easy to come up with solutions and apparent "action," but until these are put into action realtime, they are just an illusion of action. The illusion is that something is happening when it's really not.

The nature of political struggle involves hardship, sacrifice, painstaking confrontation/debate/consensus. Until these exigencies of everyday, real life are encountered and overcome, talk of a political dimension to the Internet is more talk than it is real action.

An extension of Dreyfus' ideas involves the idea that the Internet can add just one more source for the great manipulation machines of the propaganda units of both parties to work. Trying to sort out fact from fiction in the traditional media is hard enough; with the addition of the WWW you now have an ocean to swim in and to discern what's worthwhile reading/responding to and what's not.

The possibility of being anonymous or creating personae is what attracts many to the Internet. In my first attempts in chat rooms and blogs, I loved creating a pseudonym and the anonymity that that brought with it.

There can be several reasons that people choose a pseudonym. In literature, for example, Rabelias first wrote under the pseudonym of Alcofrybas Nasier. He did so because the scandalous, raucous, scatalogical humor of his writings cut so many ways and chafed so many sensibilities.

But note the name and think of the connotations that easily come to mind: alcohol, food, and Arabs. The combination, of course, is ridiculous. And hilarious. But its very suggestiveness is the point, and the connotations reflect Rabelais' ideological, philosophical, and religious humanism.

Stephen King writes under various pen-names for different reasons. There's very little danger that the church will burn him at the stake as Rabelais could suspect. Instead, King writes so to see whether he can tell a good story and whether it'll sell without his label attached to it.

So, the reasons for pseudonymity are diverse. The writer Kierkegaard--known for using dozens of pseudonyms--suggested several reasons for doing so. One is that people don't want others to know that the ideas are theirs. Some do so to evade detection for espousing various views--for honest or dishonest reasons.

Another reason that someone might use a pseudonym is to create a character that expresses views that the author does not necessarily believe but does understand the power of.

The pernicious aspects of the blogosphere arise from the very possibility for remaining anonymous. It breeds a form of irresponsibility that destroys the principles of what can be termed true selfhood. Publishing views without running the risks of having to actually stand up for them in realtime creates a hypocritical and superficial attitude to the world and others.

I am not unaware of the philosophical ramifications behind some people's desire for anonymity. It denotes for some, I think, a belief that there is no real self anyway. The ability to take on and discard anonymous pseudonyms reflects the very emptiness and nothingness of life itself. It's a form of nihilism that the blogosphere promotes but whose potential damage for political reality have yet to be assessed.

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