From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 28, 2004*: Mother Night on the Web

Since the earliest days of the internet questions of identity have fascinated both internet researchers and lay people alike. And for good reason. It is, after all, both an intriguing and a fun issue that allows lots of room for conjecture and theorizing, and there's no lack of somewhat offbeat examples and bizarre vignettes that can be used as starting points, or as filler. And of course under the rather massive umbrella of the term identity there's room for just about everything - interpersonal relationships, presentation of self, and of course that long-standing favorite: lies and deception.

Frankly, having followed this issue quite a bit over the past almost eight years I think it's fair to ask whether it's really the question of identity on the internet that interests us. I often get the feeling that behind all those studies devoted to identity is a basic voyeuristic desire to get the dirty low-down. We say that presentation of self fascinates us, but we're actually interested in taking a peek into territory which is ordinarily left uncharted (and our willingness to allow that peek is often a case of who is doing the peeking). Scratching the surface is, after all, a pasttime which we've enjoyed since well before the internet, and the opportunity to do so in such a relatively new and novel venue is an opportunity few of us want to pass up.

So if I acknolwedge that I've been over much of this territory before, a rather unavoidable question presents itself. Has anything new come up since I last examined this issue that justifies an additional column? Or perhaps, having run out of other topics to write about, I've simply chosen to rehash previously examined materials? Well, I've never previously mentioned James McLaughlin, and to my mind an examination of his online identity definitely justifies once again raising these questions. McLaughlin is a well known "cyber cop" - perhaps the best known. His story has been told numerous times in the press. From his office at the Police Department of Keene, New Hampshire, he lures out adults who seek sexual liaisons with underage boys. And of course he does this by presenting himself as just such an underage boy. Though I certainly won't argue with the fact that Mr. McLaughlin is doing important and often commendable work, I find myself wondering why it is that the adults who get lured out by him are by definition sex offenders, while he gets labeled a hero even though he also hangs out in those same online chat rooms and also presents himself in a totally different light than his "real" self.

Some people don't need James McLaughlin, or even to think about committing illegal acts, in order to get caught. With them it seems to simply be a case of "show me your hard drive and I'll show you who you are". Larry Matthews, for instance, landed in jail because the judge in his case wouldn't permit him to explain in his defense that he was a reporter collecting materials for a piece on internet pornography. Matthews, whom I wrote about quite recently, was a respected investigative reporter, but apparently pornography is pornography is pornography, and if it's on your hard drive, you're guilty. Matthews didn't "pretend to be" anyone. He thought he was acting as his real self - a successful reporter and a respected member of his community. But it turns out that he wasn't careful enough about who he really was.

Peter Townsend, the almost legendary rock guitarist, found himself in a similar situation. Townsend was shocked to discover vast amounts of readily available child pornography on the internet. He purchased some of this and brought it to the police, telling them that they had to do something about the problem. And of course they arrested him. His story makes fascinating reading.

Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night, his famous novel of over forty years ago, presents us with an important, and oft-quoted, maxim for the complexities of the (then) 20th century life:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
In the novel, this point is brought home through the story of Howard Campbell, an American living in Germany who becomes an agent for the allies during World War II. Campbell's job for the allies, however, demands that he perform highly distateful work - he spouts racist Nazi propaganda on a radio show. It is through various pauses and coughs that he is able to transmit the information that the allies request of him. After the war, and after being captured by the Israelis as a Nazi propagandist (which of course he was) Campbell must deal with the question of his "real" identity. Was he a spy or a Nazi war criminal?

The situations in which Larry Matthews and Peter Townsend find themselves, though highly undesirable, don't appear to be overly complex. We might say that theirs are cases of mistaken identity, though they seem more to simply be the victims of a system that can't, or doesn't want to, deal with complexity (and we haven't yet dealt with guilt by association). But in order to attempt to understand James McLaughlin we have to borrow from Vonnegut. He is, rather clearly, a police officer. And at first glance it seems quite obvious that he isn't a precocious 14 year old, taking his first steps into a dangerous adult world. But his pretension has brought about very real results, and results are usually caused by something. If we are what we pretend to be, James McLaughlin has become something he himself would find highly distateful.

This column originally started out as an attempt to examine how Kurt Vonnegut's classic maxim takes on real meaning in cyberspace. Yet perhaps it only pretended to do so, using a somewhat profound concept as a jumping off point for little more than banal reflections and vignettes. In the end, I doubt that it has transcended that banality. It hasn't become what it pretended to be - an in depth examination of an important subject - but has remained merely a collection of asides seeking out, yet not actually finding, a central, unifying identity. Hypertext, however, doesn't pretend, and more often than not it doesn't commit to a particular point of view either. It raises potentialities, points in possible directions. That being the case, maybe there's poetic justice in the fact that the stated goal of this column was to examine how it is that we can attempt to do one thing, yet end up doing something else. It's perhaps not at all surprising that less space seems to have been devoted to the declared central issue, and much more to the numerous asides. This isn't simply a case of truth in packaging. Instead, it's an example of how ultimately the side issues that get raised in connection to the stated main topic of these columns invariably become the central topic.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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