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Floundering Morals

Some arguments -- the really interesting arguments -- about the Web are just doomed. The problem is that the Web is so new, that we don't even know how to fight about it.

Here's an example. There's a company called ThirdVoice that lets you attach an electronic sticky note to any page you visit. It shows up as a little marker which pops up the note itself if you click on it. But to stick the note on a page and to see the markers, you have to download and install the free ThirdVoice plug-in (so far only for Windows IE 4).

This means, if you're using the ThirdVoice plug-in and go to, say, www.apple.com or www.gm.com or www.whitehouse.gov or literally any site, you see the original page and possibly a blizzard of little markers. The markers aren't really part of the page that the Whitehouse posted; the markers really live on a site that ThirdVoice runs, but you the user can't tell that. So, from the Whitehouse's point of view, their page is getting pockmarked with notes that may be racist, pornographic or Republican ... and Apple's page may have hate mail from Windows users. On the other hand, the marketing materials from ThirdVoice talk about the democratizing of the Web and freedom of speech, and enabling dialogue, and other red-blooded American ideals.

So, who's right? And, more important, how is the argument being conducted?

I went through a bunch of E-mails on the topic and found the following analogies.

It's like graffiti (and so it's bad).

It's like sticky notes (and so it's ok).

It's like you painting my house a new color because you didn't like the old one. No, it's like me wearing lavender sunglasses, to change the way your house looks.

It's like a book review. No, it's like a web site that does book reviews, except it puts the original content right next to the reviews. No, it's like a newspaper book review that gets pasted onto the cover of the book you're reading.

No, It's like restaurant reviews ... except the reviews stuck are on the restaurant itself, except they only show up if there's a special barcode painted on the restaurant without asking the restaurant's permission ... and you need a special set of sunglasses to see them ... except what you're seeing with the magic glasses isn't really on the door of the restaurant, it just looks like it ...

At this point, even if we could agree that one of these analogies is right, I don't think we could tell if it's right or wrong. It's too weird.

The fact is that almost all moral reasoning is done by analogy, even though we're usually taught that morals derive from principles. But principles are often so abstract that it's not obvious how they apply. Almost all moral conversations instead try to take a case that in our gut we're sure about and say it's like the situation we're not yet sure about.

But we're having trouble finding cases that apply to the Web -- starting with copyright protection issues and moving through sticky note graffiti and even how much we should be allowed to pretend to be who we're not.

Our moral floundering here isn't a sign of weakness. It's proof of the *profundity* of the Web's newness. And we won't get better at moral reasoning on the Web until we, as a culture, develop a richer range of Web habits ... simply by living there longer

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