Scrawl Wars in a Virtual Land

Two and a half years ago, I started Halfthoughts by drawing on a metaphor. I compared blogging to cave art. In both cases, a person feels an incontestable urge to create a representation of the world around them, by making their marks on the world that surrounds them. With no walls to make my mark upon (at least, not without punishment) this website has been my virtual wall. This is the 130th post since that first halfthought foray. Almost without fail, I have been able to maintain a regular schedule of one post every week. Last week, however, was an exception. Much to my bemusement, I found that other cavemen had broken in, and written their own grafitti over the top of mine. Their aim was not to edify you with their words, but rather to take you to places on the internet you simply do not want to go. It has taken me a week to clean up their mess and get things back to normal.

The incident provoked questions about why I write this site. It did not take me long to reach a conclusion. I want to write. That would be true irrespective of the audience. You may have noticed that this post is unusual for Halfthoughts in that I am addressing you. Normally I just write about a subject or idea that I find interesting or entertaining, without reference to either me as the source, or you, as the potential destination. My preference is for the content to sit devoid of context, floating freely like a thought bubble, save for sometimes drawing upon the history of thought bubbles that went before it.

Given that I was going to write, whether or not there was an audience, it seems perfectly natural to give people an option of reading if they like. The additional burden to me is slight; or so I thought. Think of it as talking to myself, without minding if there are eavesdroppers. What I did not account for was the potential need to progressively ‘harden’ my sites to prevent the kind of abuse that occurred with this recent hack attack. This threatens to make delivery and distribution as demanding as creation. Without a clear motive for reaching anyone other than myself, the motivation for the website is severely challenged.

The freedom of the internet can be illusory. In any anarchy, the complete freedom that is enjoyed is tempered by the way others exploit that freedom for ill. Many are already walled up inside the internet’s equivalent of civilization, amidst the pretty gardens of Facebooks and other social networking sites. With all the infrastructure that they get to exploit, they seem not to notice why anyone would go to the trouble to build it for them. They are, in reality, walking around the free space of a shopping mall. Looking around the real world, there are a good many people who only desire to shop, eat, and be presented with regularly updated moving pictures of coloured light. A shopping mall is a good place to sate all these desires. But as demonstrated by their sometimes contemptuous disinterest in a user’s privacy, Facebook and others did not create a mall merely as a place where people can enjoy themselves. At least some of us need to spend money now and again, or else the mall will close down. Rather than live in that sanitized environment, I am willing to venture beyond the walls of the internet malls and take my chances in the wild expanses of the true internet. But my aim is not to pioneer for the sake of a pioneering spirit, and there is the risk that banditry will drive me back.

Perhaps my personal encounter with the dark side of the internet is a one-off. I hope so. The potential for the internet is still a long way from being fully realized, though already there are some doubts that the human race will continue to feel that imaginative urge to explore what it might offer. People have a tendency to venture only so far into uncharted territory before they decide to settle down, or turn back. The great ideas of the internet were not thought of by a few employees of Google, though you might almost think that internet innovation is increasingly the preserve of big business, however oxymoronic it is to suggest that big business and innovation could ever go hand-in-hand. How wild the internet can remain will be determined by the wildness in people’s hearts. Perhaps, like the Americans as they moved from the East to the West of the US, law and government will inevitably be brought to all, whether they like it or not. If the wilds are relatively peaceful, the progress of this drive to domesticate will be slight. But if the wide open spaces of the internet are occupied by real dangers to humanity, such as cyber-armies employed by the tyrants of China and Russia, or by organized criminals with machinations to take over our machines, then order will be imposed more quickly and more brutally, and anarchy will enjoy a far shorter reign.

For the moment, I will continue to wander outside the cities and suburbs of the internet, and will tend the homesteads on these domains I claimed for myself. I can deal with the occasional lawless trespasser like the malware maestros from Minsk that not only invaded my sites, but seem to be plaguing every site on my host, Mediatemple. I am even willing to give short shrift to any big business wanting to put limits on my freedom of speech. That was demonstrated when BT decided they should have final say on what could be published on my talkRA site. I can cope with skirmishes and battles. What worries me is an all-out war with outlaws, or the equally dreadful alternative of the imposed order by those who like to think themselves the elite. The virtual territory of the internet really is a good metaphor for the land we all inhabit on the surface of this planet. People have been fighting for control of it since man lived in caves. The war is not over yet, and the stakes are as high as ever. The wilds of the internet offer refuge from despots of every variety. Let us hope we can keep those wilds beautiful, and unspoiled.

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