Ban on peek-a-boo cam phones

David Weinberger on the moral shape of cyberspace

Last night at MIT I attended an extremely thought-provoking talk by David Weinberger — author of Small Piece Loosely Joined — on the moral shape of cyberspace.

Essentially, he argued that morality in the “real” world is created because we live in a shared world, and are constantly aware of each other. Merely being aware of each other is an act of selflessness; it means we’re constantly getting outside of ourselves when we pay attention to others. (As he notes, this theory is very much at odds with currently popular ideas about morality, which start by assuming we’re all atomistic individuals — and which thus puzzle over why we act in altruistic or selfless ways.)

Intersestingly, Weinberger argues that the web has a similar morality built into it, via the whole concept of links. A link, as Google has so profitably discovered, is a piece of social glue — someone calling attention to someone else. It thus mirrors the constant pinging of each other that takes place in the real world, with everyone being constantly (sometimes generously, sometimes nervously, sometime angrily) aware of each other’s existence, and shifting our behavior accordingly.

Weinberger put some notes up about it on his weblog:

Every time I put in a link to a site, I am sending people away from my site, a little act of selflessness and generosity. The Web is characterized by generosity throughout. The Web is a shared world created out of shared interests. It is fundamentally connected, sympathetic and moral.

Obviously, many immoral awful things occur on the Web. But its architecture reflects our moral nature. And it’s exciting to so many of us because of the promise it offers for moving the species forward not only technologically but also morally.


Are we more or less moral online? Are we the same?

Is the Web a reflection of who we are or a reflection of our “better nature.”

Is there a developing online ethics or ethos? In what is it rooted?

Can a technology be moral or immoral, or do the terms not apply?

Is the Internet political? Does the value-free transmission of bits have its own value? What did the Taliban make of the Internet? China? Fundamentalists? Are they wrong?

What’s the best we could hope for (= work for) WRT the Web?

UPDATE: Weinberger has written an expanded version of these notes based on the talk, which is extremely cool. It boils his thesis down to a neat aphorism:

In a nutshell: The Internet is about truth and the Web is about morality.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson