A world where everyone knows everything about everyone else has been a common dystopia. The villain in these frightening worlds has often been a shadowy government, thirsting for information and control. And that remains a frightening possibility in many parts of the world. But there are other, less gloomy outcomes. A world without secrets might actually yield a more forgiving culture with stronger, more informed individuals.
Citizens of the developed world now give off information about themselves at unprecedented rates. Authorities demand information from us when we fly, pass through tollgates, cross borders, and enter public buildings. As the investigation of the July London bombings has revealed, dozens of cameras may capture a city stroll. The cyber trails that people leave are now well known. As many have discovered to their chagrin, records of e-mails sent and Web sites visited rarely disappear -- and they often pop up at the most inconvenient moments.
It's ironic that the Web once seemed to promise individuals new opportunities to explore the world without showing their face. Instead, it is turning out to be a powerful force against anonymity. Most information about people's online actions is traceable -- if someone with resources cares to go to the trouble. But there will be much more to this trend than the familiar fear of governments spying on innocent victims, or even they-asked-for-it dissidents. The bigger questions revolve around the tolerance of societies for diversity and recognition of the human capacity for change.
The technologically adept and dedicated may be able to preserve some form of anonymity -- for a time. Some people, for example, will create multiple identities online for the various sites they visit, the social networks they enter, and the online merchants they frequent. To be sure, most identities will be traceable by authorities with subpoena power, but not by your neighbors, your colleagues, or even your prospective employer. But, in the end, these defenses will break down and our slime trails will become increasingly visible.
Those trails will pose a challenge for societies eager to judge instantly. Are we likely to have a tolerant society when whole swaths of once private behavior become visible? Unprecedented transparency may actually force a cultural change -- a sort of statute of limitations on reputations. Curiosity will continue (we're human beings, after all), but a healthier understanding of how people can change may be the ultimate result.
This salutary cultural change will not ease the concerns of those who fear anonymity's passing. But there is reason to doubt the breadth of this concern. The popular perception is that people want anonymity; in fact, it appears that most people crave recognition. Many young people want it so much that they join multiple networking sites, rate themselves and friends on various scales, and fill in online questionnaires and surveys. Even as individuals evince more and more concern about privacy and identity theft, they flood onto the Web as themselves, publishing blogs, posting photos, contributing reviews, and revealing all (or so it seems) on dating sites.
In effect, people are trading anonymity for a voice. The Web is empowering individuals to engage with others not just as consumers picking from what's on offer, but as active negotiators, defining specifications for others to meet. That effect is particularly visible in the commercial and social realms, but less clear vis-à-vis the governments of the world. As anonymity fades, a critical question will remain: Are we getting as much as we're giving up?