Thursday, May 8, 2008

Behavior: From Bad to Malicious to Pathological

The most annoying precept of Internet evangelism is the idea that cyberspace houses one big, happy family in which the spirit of cooperation is always thriving and where any instance of "bad behavior" can be managed by the general spirit of good will that pervades the community. I find this annoying because I believe that we are obliged to analyze any instance of bad behavior when we encounter it, because we can only deal with it by understanding it. If we fail to understand it, it can only get worse. Thus, when behavior makes the transition from "bad" (in a connotation we tend to associated with "childish") to "malicious," we need to take vigilant notice, since the next step along the progress of that behavior is "pathological," examples of which I recently reviewed.

This is the context in which we should read AP Technology Writer Jordan Robertson's report on the latest "advance" in hacking Web sites:

Computer attacks typically don't inflict physical pain on their victims.

But in a rare example of an attack apparently motivated by malice rather than money, hackers recently bombarded the Epilepsy Foundation's Web site with hundreds of pictures and links to pages with rapidly flashing images.

The breach triggered severe migraines and near-seizure reactions in some site visitors who viewed the images. People with photosensitive epilepsy can get seizures when they're exposed to flickering images, a response also caused by some video games and cartoons.

However, I disagree with Robertson's own sense of context, which seems to view the instance as just another exploitation of Web site vulnerability:

In another recent attack, hackers exploited a simple coding vulnerability in Sen. Barack Obama's Web site to redirect users visiting the community blogs section to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's official campaign site.

In my personal ontology this latter example is an instance of "bad" behavior, consistent with the general tendency of political competition to devolve into street fighting with higher stakes. Preying on the vulnerabilities of epileptics, on the other hand, is "malicious," if not already over the edge into "pathological." I am inclined to agree with the statement that Robertson quoted from security researcher Paul Ferguson:

I count this in the same category of teenagers who think it's funny to put a cat in a bag and throw it over a clothesline — they don't realize how cruel it is. It was an opportunity waiting to happen for some mean-spirited kid.

If I ever get around to redesigning the architecture of the "Inferno" that Dante conceived, I may well reserve an entire circle for Internet evangelists, each of whom will sit in a small cell with absolutely nothing to look at except for a wall on which Ferguson's second sentence has been written. As scientists since the days of the Manhattan Project have known, every opportunity to do good is also an opportunity to do evil. The choices that individuals make are moderated by their social context, which is organized around a variety of institutions, such as families, schools, and governments. Internet evangelists tend not to talk about such institutions, perhaps because they see Internet technology displacing all of them. Consequently, when behavior does go "over the edge into 'pathological'" and the role that these institutions play begins to surface, all they can do is fumble around, as when attempts to address questions of governance arose in the wake of the death threats against Kathy Sierra.

My only question with Ferguson's second sentence is whether he assumes that this particular act of malice was the work of "some mean-spirited kid." Is it not also the behavior of that adult world about which Barack Obama was trying to warn us in that speech that blew up in his face? As I had put it, it is a world of adults whom circumstances have pushed over to the "dark side," "replete with frustration and expressed in bitterness." Adolf Hitler understood the power of such an adult world and engaged it to build up the momentum for what would later be called the Holocaust. Epileptics are just as easy (and irrational) a target as Jews; so my own spirit of analysis is reluctant to write this incident off as a childish prank of unwitting cruelty.

This is not to push the pendulum to the other extreme. The Internet is not, in and of itself, a "breeding ground" for pathological behavior. Such behavior is a product of a broader social context, but the Internet is now indisputably a part of that social context. Those who contribute to the development of cyberspace need to be more aware that they are developing a social world, as well as a technological one, and that such a social world, like those in the physical counterpart to cyberspace, requires certain institutions in order to function in the interest of a general public welfare. The developers who seem to understand this best are the designers of multi-player games; but the risk is that their understanding is limited to virtual worlds whose players can, in the words of Bing Gordon (currently "in transition" from Electronic Arts to Kleiner Perkins), "reach out and kill someone." (Think, also, of the $500 million sales figure from the first week of "Grand Theft Auto IV.") In terms of my favorite comparison of cyberspace to Deadwood, the latter may have made more rapid progress towards institution-building than we can expect of the former!


Anonymous said...

Alongside your examples of malice such as hacking, I would throw in the multiple cases of deliberately false Wikipedia entries being posted anonymously. Wikipedia evangelists (a subset of those Internet evangelists you reference) have come up with many elaborate ways of dismissing that as "kid's stuff," too.

Stephen Smoliar said...

"Wikipedia behavior" is practically a subject unto itself. Others have studied it far more thoroughly than I. Usually, when I read about such studies, I then try to write my own impressions, as I did
last March