The Ring of Gyges: Should the Internet be Transparent?
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
It’s a hot topic, and temperature’s only rising: should the Internet stay true to its founding virtues of decentralized mass anonymity or is it high time to implement structures of transparency to keep the bots and bullies at bay? Perhaps some insight from the past can shed light on this twenty-first century head scratcher.
The story begins like so: one fated afternoon, a shepherd from humble beginnings stumbles upon a cave within which lies a golden ring with the power to turn its wearer invisible—sound familiar? Sorry, no Gollums nor Frodos here. This is the philosopher Plato’s Ring of Gyges myth, which inspired the Lord of the Rings and even the original Invisible Man.
In this tale, the shepherd, jazzed up with his newfound powers of invisibility, decides to make use of it to better his livelihood. Quickly, he ascends from a lowly, virtuous shepherd to a queen seductor and kingslaying murderer, before finally asserting himself as the new king.
Plato uses this myth to argue the necessity of transparency, believing even the saintliest saint would be corrupted by the alluring anonymity provided by the ring, and that lawful society must be put in place precisely for this reason.
To him, virtue vanishes amongst the invisible.
This line of thinking checks out in the age of the Internet, with nameless trolls belittling whoever they wish without repercussion, online stalking, porn addiction, mass bot accounts, and access to dangerous tutorials on explosives and 3D printed guns, to name a few. All this would lead us to believe hard-coded transparency is a no-brainer, “duh, let’s do it”, for improving the Internet.
But hold on, many believed anonymity is what gave the Internet its awesome-sauce in the first place. Was there any merit to their convictions?
Imagine with me now a society in which complete transparency is the name of the game. One where a coalescence of social security and truth-telling blockchain make it so the online actions of each and every citizen are openly accessible for each and every other citizen to peruse (including employers).
Immediately, we see this side of the spectrum brings its own slew of problems. What happens to privacy, for example, when this transparent society conjoins with an onslaught of Internet-connected cars, cameras, phones, and building ads? Does such a thing as privacy continue to exist?
And how would dissidents of authoritarian countries speak out when such a technology is implemented on them? What happens to their possibility of change, to their hope? Would they even be aware of what democracy is when information access is cut and tracked?
Finally, what becomes of redemption? As humans we are molded from vast arrays of biological temperaments and life experiences, and we all make mistakes. Does a society function best when the mistakes of its citizens are captured online for all to see, and to be forever haunted by? Or (in non-egregious cases, of course) is it better to let failures fizzle, ingrained by the individual should they choose but removed from collective memory so that learning, betterment, and redemption may keep their stake in human development?
So, which side do you believe society should lean towards, an anonymous or transparent Internet? My suspicion is, like most dichotomies in this world, the ideal point lies at an ever-shifting center of gravity somewhere in between. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 😊