What the Ashley Madison hack means for the digital age

With a certain amount of fascination and astonishment I am following how the story of the hack of the extramarital dating site Ashley Madison is evolving. It was especially insightful to learn about all the types of questions, worries and concerns that members, scammers and distrustful spouses/partners have about the user data that had been dumped on the Internet following the hack. Many users of the site seem terrified of the thought of being exposed as cheaters. Sadly, even suicide cases by Ashley Madison customers are being reported. Meanwhile, criminals are trying to capitalize on the desperation of users through extortion.

First and foremost, the incident teaches yet another lesson about that in our digital era, sensitive data is not really safe. That itself is not news though. What I find more interesting to muse about is how technology forces us to examine our ways of living and the social contracts and norms that are the foundation of our modern societies.

Ashley Madison has reportedly 39 million members. Not all of them might be willing to actually have an affair. On the other hand, this is not the only site catering to people looking for a secret fling. One also must assume that millions of people currently in relationships are not member on any of these sites (due to not knowing about them or security/privacy concerns) but generally would be open to secret “adventures” facilitated with the help of the Internet.

The story about the hack of Ashley Madison contradicts today’s (almost) universal cultural ideal of the monogamous relationship. Of course everyone knew that adultery and affairs happen. But as a private matter with high secrecy and no hard, reliable data available, people and contemporary societies somehow managed to pretend to each other that everything is alright.

But now, here comes the Internet and a website and crosses that facade.

I am sorry for the people and families that are affected by this hack. However, I think we better get used to the fact that these things happen. It is unrealistic to believe that IT security ever will reach a perfect state.

So, a more practical approach than trying hard to continue to hide the contradictions and oddities of human existence and social cohabitation would be to see this as an invitation to a cultural change. To start being more honest with ourselves and each other (one might call it “post privacy” although I think this term can lead to too radical associations).

The big question that derives from the Ashley Madison hack and other incidents in which digital technology forces us to look into the mirror of modern civilization is whether humans’ need for ambivalence and contradictions in their behaviour is stronger than the power of new technology to influence and change this behavior. If yes, then the Internet eventually will die from heavy, crippling regulation and limitations, caused by public pressure to “tame” the Internet – something which we already can see in many countries.

It’s in the hands of the people to decide whether they take the opportunity to adjust the social contracts and norms that govern everyday life. A hack like the one of Ashley Madison is a criminal act. But whether large-scale incidents like this have to harm personal lives and individual fates or not does not depend on technology but on us humans.

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