Society and the Digital Age

As society has developed over many hundreds or more accurately, thousands of years, we have learned to cope better with larger populations. Admittedly, there are some individuals in our society who do not seem to understand that society needs cooperation in order to function. A few, relatively few, individuals can see selfish gain, by non cooperation with an otherwise stable society. Yet, most of us do cooperate and help preserve the stability of our societies so that our families, our children, the old, the defenceless etc. can grow up safely and can mature and develop and learn.
We are all exposed however. If I just walk down the street, I don’t expect someone to think, ah, he is looking the other way, I can kill him by hitting him with this pole from behind. In many places, if I unknowingly dropped some personal item, a complete stranger to me might pick it up and return it to me. Most would not think, ah, I can have that item because the owner of it has carelessly dropped it. In essence, whilst things don’t always work this way because not all members of our society quite understand how it needs to work, we do seem to manage to get by without adopting extreme measures. I don’t walk down the street clad in protective armour in case someone hits me from behind and we can let children play without undue fear that they will be harmed or killed by adults or older children. I can also have glass in the windows of my home even though someone could think, ah glass windows, I could easily smash them.
As the statements above are considered, it is easy to see how some people will have experienced the worse elements of the discussion. Yet there are very many people in large societies in the world and most of the time it works OK. Obviously, we could want it to work better but that would involve there being fewer selfish, greedy people and more people who actually understand about living in large societies. Yet we still expect things to be OK.
Not in our new digital world though. Here, there does not seem to be the same general understanding about how we should cooperate. In the digital world, we do need to walk about wearing suits of armour, we can’t let our children play unattended and we should not have glass in our windows. Whilst things are, in some ways, not too different from our physical world, in other ways they are very different. Most people in the digital world are still decent, reasonable people, who could live cooperatively in a large society. But there are still the ones who are selfish and greedy. More than this however, there are the people who are basically bullies. The digital world gives them somewhere to hide from where they can attack others without being seen. These bullies seem to find dishonesty not only more acceptable but they find it a valuable tool to disrupt.
We seem to have allowed our digital world to become a world where the greedy and the selfish thrive. We seem to also have created a dense fog where bullies and quite possibly evil people can attack society yet at the same time be shielded from it. If the digital world is to become a little more like our real world then it needs to be more transparent. If someone attacks me in the street, I have a good chance of seeing them and even defending myself successfully. The attacker might also be seen by others and the attacker has a much higher chance of having to face the consequences of his or her actions. This might be enough to dissuade the bullies and the socially inept. Yet we seem to value our anonymity in the digital world and many seek services which hide their digital activity. We also seem to value the freedom to operate in the digital world without cost. Take email for instance. It costs nothing to send one email or to send one million emails. So, bombarding enormous numbers of people with scam emails is a real option but posting that many letters would have a significant cost, although some can afford it.
How can digital society be made to work better for us all?

John L. Gordon – November 2019