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The Computer, Perfect Hiding Place?
November 28th, 2000

On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Ah, technology! What a wonderful world filled with silicon, plastics, semiconductors, chips, circuits and metal. It makes communications easy with e-mail traveling across the world faster than you can drop a letter at the post office. The same applies for information that you can find in less time at home than it takes to even make it to the library. There are so many benefits, it sounds like the best thing that has ever happened to us, right?

Maybe not. Sometimes I wonder if the computer is nothing but the perfect blind for people to hide behind. To conceal who they are, what they are, and keep private the things that they could not screen in person.

In the movie The Net, Angela Bennett says "perfect hiding place" when talking about the world of computers in a conversation. How appropriate! Of course, any computer-savvy person will tell me that The Net is a fictional film, but the principle mentioned is very, very real. The character that Sandra Bullock played is a perfect example of people who isolate themselves behind their technology.

I have the feeling that the Internet is too impersonal. I have the feeling that a good portion of the people who use it prefer to hide themselves and their personalities.

This is in addition to the fact that extensive use of technology isolates people in their homes or offices. This certainly helps to kill their social lives. If you read newspapers or watch televised news, you will see a bunch of reports telling you how people's social lives suffer because of computers. On the other side, some protest that this is not for real because more and more people know how to use technology as a tool, not a way of life.

Nevertheless, there is a concern about this. The one I express now is not necessarily about the computer being the center of someone's life. I think that most of us are adults - some are not, despite their age - and that one who spends 40 hours a week on the computer for work and entertainment makes a genuine choice, even if I wonder if it is right.

My point is that once we use technologies, we should not hide behind them. As human beings, we normally have nothing to cover up, right?

When I go on the Internet, I like to watch people's behavior. When they participate in discussions in public forums, mailing lists or even when writing for Web sites, there is something missing once you read their diatribes and opinionated pieces. Who are they? What is their educational background, what kind of career do they have? Where is the personal page to give hints about who is writing?

People who use the medium to broadcast their views experience one of the biggest breakthroughs in freedom of expression. It is now possible to reach millions of people through instant communications worldwide. This allows many of us to discuss all kinds of subjects with specific groups of interests (Ford vehicle owners, Microsoft product users...) in very little time. Doing this was difficult a few years before the Internet became a mass media.

On the other hand, it allows any person to come across as an authority simply because of strong manifestations, often without knowing WHO is that person. The initial spirit of the Internet was that one person could have an impact on the whole online community. I certainly embrace the concept, but it is nice to have an idea of who those individuals are. Isn't it?

Every time that I visit a site, read a newsgroup, receive a message via a mailing list and that I cannot click on a link that tells me who is who... I find it frustrating.

I can even give you an example about Mac Web sites. As a contributor or at least as an acquaintance of writers and editors, I barely know who I deal with. I know very little about most people I communicated with for Web publishing purposes, and I met even fewer of them in person. It is weird when you know only the name and writings of colleagues or never had more than e-mail contact with an editor you worked with for a while, eh?

If the Internet is about breaking barriers, why do people put new ones right in front of themselves? Do we fear that the Wild Wild West of online communications could harm us? Do we fear that showing our personality will turn things around? I can certainly understand that nobody should expose their phone numbers and most private information for security issues, but does not mean that we should be wholly anonymous.

I have the impression that if we decide to publish messages in all types of forums and outlets, we should also provide information about ourselves. People need to know who is behind the material.

I believe in a certain form of online privacy, especially for crucial information such as phone numbers, financial information and other things like that, but I also believe that anybody who wants to electrify the masses with online rants should go forward with a minimum of information to tell people why they should be credible.

I fully agree that photos may not be entirely appropriate since it is better to judge a person's words at face value instead of judging the face, but we should also have the chance to judge words with more than just a recurrent name, too.

Just a thought.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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