Law in Contemporary Society
Return to the West

-- By DavidKellam - 31 May 2017

Our modern acceptance of online surveillance may irreversibly displace any feeling of entitlement that humankind feels towards privacy. There is little time left before the notion of autonomy is substantially forgotten, but online anonymity may suppress the movement that seeks to convert our personal data into a market commodity.

The Human Subconscious with an Online Stage

The true wild west of the internet, upon which a cult generation of tech-obsessed young Americans constructed the future of humankind, is over. It was overrun by the online gold rush and replaced with corporate and government invigilators that trade in our personal information. Any awareness that we may have of this change to a more sinister online environment has been obscured by the convenience of programs that streamline our access to information. It is in the carefully crafted language of user contracts that we have unknowingly relinquished our privacy rights, all in the shadow of federal regulatory support. What we have overlooked is the extent to which the transparency of our online identities may be modifying our cognitive relationship to the internet in the form of a modern, online Hawthorne Effect.

For nearly a century, behavioral modification resulting from observation has been a topic of social psychological debate. The Hawthorne Effect has become the colloquial caption of this phenomenon. Initially centered on industrial workplace productivity, and later on human behavior during research, Hawthorne studies have evolved in purpose and meaning. The theme of the Hawthorne studies, however, has remained; the human subconscious can cause alteration of conscious behavior in response to an awareness of surveillance. The modern psychological explanation of the Hawthorne Effect’s mechanism is that awareness of observation engenders beliefs about spectator expectations. Subconscious conformity and social considerations then cause behavioral modification in line with these expectations.

Viewing online behavior through this context may provide a platform upon which some of the atmospherics of the Hawthorne conversation can be better evaluated, and the findings of such research will likely provide reciprocal insight on the dangers of online surveillance. Freud believed that civilization provides protection by imposing heavy dictates which subconsciously “obtain mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire[s]” by “setting up an agency within him to watch over it.” Today, this “mastery” over our free will is manifest in a modern, online Hawthorne Effect.

The Momentum of Conformity

Most internet users can relate to a feeling of uncertainty when submitting a response to a controversial political thread or when reading news from a source that is at stark odds with their government’s narrative. In both cases, several parties may have access to the resulting data: the ISP, the controlling corporation, the external parties to whom this information is sold, and the government actors with access to their databases.

The longer an internet user is aware of surveillance, the more that their online behavior may change to fit the perceived expectations of the entities from which the content is sourced. With an increase in users modifying their behavior, there will be an accompanying increase in content that supports the respective regulatory body, and less incentive for a user to venture outside of the online consensus to find information. Eventually, this behavioral modification recruits others through an abundance of web content created by conforming users afraid to deviate from the gospel of “acceptable” content. This creates a realm of self-sustaining group sensibilities often referred to as the “echochamber.”

As powerful online actors realize their influence, it is possible that they make their beliefs more evident, thus controlling the direction of conformity that results from our subconscious desire to submit to their expectations. People will be more reluctant to explore opposing viewpoints; the acceptable narrative will spread further on social media; otherwise aimless voters will conform their beliefs; and politicians will respond, themselves invariably enamored by the convenience of gleaning social knowledge directly from their newsfeed. The true danger, though, is the possibility that a type of hivemind emerges from the echochamber, and its queen, an abstract being alive in the underground cabling of Google Fiber.

Anonymity as a Possible Solution

Today, runners upload their daily steps to an online database; navigation apps store where we go, when, and who we are with; roving bugs which can remotely activate phone microphones have been judicially approved. If this influence continues to grow, the collective consciousness of information transmission might soon become the collective consciousness of behavior, and the next generation to reach adulthood will have never lived without it.

If a Hawthorne Effect truly is present in our online interactions, then a possible restraint on the inevitable growth of technological influence is anonymity. When we are anonymous, we are more comfortable obtaining alternative information and can share opinions without the conscious or subconscious pressure of conformity to our would-be spectators. Without this pressure, we can cultivate our beliefs with far less outside influence, leaving room for personal experiences to shape the way that we relate to the world.

There are several possible routes to online anonymity: implementation of encrypted nodes, broader participation in anonymizing networks, and judicial limitations on corporate data sharing and government access to name a few. However, any movement to encourage such change must necessarily consist of people who have lived in a time of perceived online anonymity and remember a state of privacy to which we could return.


The “wild west” of the internet did not end with the advent of telephones and automobiles, as did its historical namesake, but instead through a capitalist landgrab of ideas in which corporations saturated the consumer market with apps that have dulled our sensitivity to privacy violations and limited our ability to explore ideas free from surveillance. There are few of us left capable of fighting the resulting inertia of online groupthink that we and our children face, and unless we act within the window of our lifetime, the fabric of the human experience as we have always known it will become unsalvageable.


Webs Webs

r4 - 01 Jun 2017 - 03:05:45 - DavidKellam
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM