The questionable value of anonymity

Anonymity may be necessary only if other people have it. If one has the ability to hide things, but another doesn't, the one who does has an advantage. But if no one has the ability to hide anything - then perhaps no one needs to.

In political terms, I don't think being able to be anonymous makes anyone safer. When confronted with bad rules, anonymously violating them is the chicken's way out.

If one who disagrees with a bad law can use anonymity to avoid it, one loses not only the incentive to have the law fixed, but also the integrity to influence it.

For every 1 good thing that happens in politics by way of anonymity, 10 bad things happen because corrupt officials, too, act anonymously.

A commentator on Schneier's blog wrote: "The advantages of anonymity grow linearly with the population; the disadvantages grow with the square of the population."

I believe this is true.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point about the Rule of 150: a non-hierarchical community can function as long as it remains smaller than 150 people, because this is the number of people an individual can keep track of. In a community smaller than 150 people, everyone knows everyone else; no one is anonymous. When a community grows beyond 150, it starts to dissolve with increasing anonymity of its members.

The Amish know this: when a settlement grows beyond 150 people, half move out and form a new settlement.

Gore-Tex knows this: they function well in a non-hierarchical organizational approach without titles where each factory they build has 150 parking spaces. When people start parking on grass, they know it's time to start a new factory.

The military know this: the capacity of a functional fighting unit is 200, because "they have realized that it is quite difficult to make any larger a group than this to function as a unit without complicated hierarchies and rules and regulations and formal measures to insure loyalty and unity within the group."

Anonymity kills a community because it makes it possible to live a several-faced life: one can keep a good social life yet at the same time engage in behavior that harms and exploits the community. Ripping off the government for social payments one should not deserve. Engaging in lying, scheming, corruption and bribery. Engaging in criminal activities and fraud. All of this hidden from one's friends and family - or perhaps even condoned, since they are not impacted.

In a community smaller than 150 people, such disruptive behavior cannot work out because everyone knows everyone and word gets around. But in a larger community, it is quite possible to lead a harmful lifestyle indefinitely, and a large number of people do: we pay for disruption they cause through (often much) higher insurance and taxes, and only a handful of them are accidentally held accountable.

I am quite inclined to think that if everything everyone did was transparent, society would be more honest, straightforward, simpler and not quite so prejudiced. Just as long as there aren't any exceptions; especially not among any public officials.

[Added 2006-04-04: See also David Brin: The Transparent Society]


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