Choose your superpower

In his latest newsletter, David Weinberger asks if there is a right to anonymity in cyberspace. Let's forget about the Internet for the moment. In one of my favorite episodes of This American Life, entitled Superpowers, interviewer John Hodgman asks people this fascinating question: If you could have the power to fly, or to be invisible, which would you choose?

The decision-making process, Hodgman says, has five stages:

Hodgman: Subject A begins as they all do, with stage one: gut reaction.

Subject A: Initially I would think, perhaps, invisibility...

Hodgman: Next comes stage two, practical consideration.

Subject A: You can walk around at work, turn invisible, listen to what they say about you, you have the power to spy on your exes, and that would all be enlightening, and fun, and in fact a little bit perverted...

Hodgman: You hear that doubt in his voice? That's the beginning of stage three, philosophical reconsideration.

Subject A: I believe it would immediately turn into a life of complete depression, you wouldn't be able to share with anyone, I know there would be problems.

Hodgman: Stage four, self-recrimination.

Subject A: Invisibility leads you, leads me as an invisible person, down a dark path...

Hodgman: Finally, stage five, acceptance.

Subject A: Yeah, I'd have to go with flight.

Another interviewee concludes:

I think a lot of people will tell you they'll choose flight, and I think they're lying. I think they'll say that in order to sound mythic and heroic, because the better angels of our nature would tell us that we should strive for flight. But I think if everybody were being perfectly honest, they'd tell you the truth, which is that they all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, go to movies for free, go to exotic places without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.

In cyberspace we really can have both superpowers. Nothing compels us to choose between them, but I think we will. Although our wings have been clipped slightly by firewalls and NATs, our power of flight -- the ability to go anywhere, instantly -- remains essentially intact. The Internet was designed to enable us to fly. It wasn't designed to help us hide. We just happened to get that for free, in the beginning, because it was way easier to punt on identity.

Privacy, yes, to the fullest extent possible. Invisibility, no. I don't want to live in a world where "our every click is tracked, our every purchase becomes a datum to be turned against us." But neither do I want to become a cloaked and anonymous skulker in order to avoid that. We shouldn't have to make that choice.

Update: Patrick Logan writes:

I think in normal American society (where normal to me means the society I've been a part of for the past 42 years) I would also choose the ability to fly.

But what if I were living in a more tyrannical society? Like Iraq? I certainly would choose to disappear for any number of reasons.

Excellent point.

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