One of the many cool things about Uber is that it allows passengers to rate the driver. Not surprisingly, the drivers are very friendly. A recent hack of Uber’s site highlighted that the sauce-for-the-gander reverse is also true: the drivers rate us passengers. Even better, for a while it was possible to crack Uber’s database and see the driver’s ratings for you. With enough cleverness, you could even pry loose how others were rated.
At first this might seem a creepy invasion of privacy, especially if you’re less than a five-star passenger. But there’s a virtue to losing your anonymity. Once you know you’re being rated, just like the driver, you’re likely to be a bit nicer, sit in the front, and make conversation. The world becomes slightly more civil.
Plato in The Republic writes about the Ring of Gyges, a mythical piece of jewelry that allows its wearer to become invisible. His question is whether such a person would always be moral when assured that no one could see him. Plato’s brother Glaucon says it’s obvious that we’re more likely to behave like a jerk, or worse, when we know that we’ll never be caught or called out.
Civil liberties junkies sometimes confuse the worthy ideal of privacy with anonymity, a less exalted concept. The idea that we should be able to interact with other people anonymously is rather new in human history. It arose when people started moving from tight-knit communities to urban areas where they were generally unknown. When I was a kid in New Orleans, if I went to the local store and bought a pack of Marlboros, it would get back to my parents in about five minutes. Now we can buy anything anonymously and, worse yet, say anything.
This has not elevated the civic discourse. If I could conjure up a magic Plato ring, it would allow me to know and publicly reveal the names and addresses of all people who anonymously post vulgar rants and racist tweets. I would use it only sparingly, but I suspect that just a few such revelations would make the Twittersphere and Blogosphere suddenly a bit more civil, or at least subdued.
In the early days of the online world, people who posted in virtual communities such as The WELL knew that, even if they were using a pseudonym, they were creating an online identity and reputation that was worth tending. A year ago, the Huffington Post began requiring people to register in order to comment, and it has elevated the discourse on the site.
When the Internet Protocol was created in the early 1970s, it did not grant total anonymity to users. To this day, unless you take special precautions, a good hacker – or the NSA – can track down your I.P. address, location, and even your true identity. If a few white-hat hackers or NSA leakers published the names and addresses of, say, the trolls who hounded Robin Williams’s daughter, there would understandably be an outcry among privacy (read: anonymity) advocates, but it would have the silver lining of muting some of the haters.
Likewise, if we all thought we were subject to being rated, we might work harder to be on our best behavior. In the world of Yelp and TripAdvisor and HealthGrades, we get to rate our restaurants and hotels and doctors. I hope that expands. College students rate their professors in many places; it would be nice to allow kids and parents to rate their high school teachers. In the sauce-for-the-gander category, if teachers and waiters and hotels were all rating us, it might feel a bit Orwellian. Nevertheless, it’s a cool Ring of Gyges thought experiment to imagine how much better we would behave.
Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of TIME, is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. A former chairman and CEO of CNN, he is the author of Steve Jobs (2011),Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and the forthcoming The Innovators (October 2014), as well as the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). This article also appears in the Aspen Journal of ideas