With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility


So as any of you who visited HPC yesterday know, it was attacked by a malware hosting site. I’m not sure how they do it, but somehow they get in and implant iframe code to serve up malicious software for unsuspecting visitors. I think it may have been a security hole in WordPress combined with my own laziness around passwords (now fixed). Either way, it wasn’t a good day and I spent many hours cleaning out this bad code and trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Many hours were also spent by Ivan Storck (of Sustainable Websites – my host), William Dodson (from OBX Designworks) and my friend Mathieu (developer in Montreal) in helping me through this. By the time we got all of the malware attack cleaned out, Google had blacklisted my site (which led to a series of blacklisting by all the sites using Google’s indexing API). Yuck.

I wasn’t attacked personally. This happens randomly all of the time. Somehow there is money to be made in ruining the internet. However, I find it very odd to think that one would wreck the very thing that provides them with a steady stream of income. I compared the action to the self-replicating Smith on the Matrix. (spoiler alert) Imagine if Smith would have won – he would have taken the machine down and everyone would have died. There would be no point in him existing anymore.

Which brings me to my point: where did we go wrong in the world to encourage the Smiths? The malware hosts? The scammers, spammers, frauds, grifters, etc? Those that would pollute the very environment they need to exist in? These people are obviously gifted with the ability to problem solve, code, think up elaborate schemes and strategize. If they used this talent for good and not for evil, imagine how AWESOME the world would be!

It’s a tragedy of the commons, where selfish thinkers abuse the common space for their own gain. Of course, this thinking – if truly strategic – assumes that not all will follow the selfish path. The tragedy occurs when everyone thinks selfishly and the commons is ruined and unusable, leaving nothing for anyone to exploit any longer.

If instead human beings thought truly strategically – and this is the basis to my favourite book in the universe The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley – and contributed to the commons, we would all thrive! But this selfish, short-term thinking hacking away of small pieces of the pie happens and we all suffer…including the hackers themselves eventually.

This happens because – as Ridley says in The Origins of Virtue – the system is set up to encourage such selfish, short term thinking. Narrow view competition, multiple times removed culpability and a focus on short-term rewards have encouraged this. For instance, there are corporate structures, with their quarterly reporting (short-term view) and lack of social responsibility (the responsibility is with the shareholders who are far removed from the decision making as well as the consequences of that decision making). Copyright and patents also contribute to the attitude. I would argue that almost everything about surviving in modern society has to do with removing ourselves from responsibility and giving us the individual task to survive one day at a time (but that is a different post).

Thus, we encourage a great deal of tragedy in the commons themselves, costing billions of dollars in security, fraud protection, insurance and damages every year to those who try to live their lives on the up and up.

So, how do we stop this insanity? Like Peter Parker in the picture – whose tragedy was focusing on his own selfish needs resulting in the loss of his uncle – we aren’t recognizing the long term consequences of our actions. I really think this needs to be forefront in our discussions around this stuff. We also need a good dialogue and understanding of the butterfly effect – how one action leads to effecting so many others. It may seem small and insignificant to cheat here and there, but it adds up and changes the system we are part of. And finally, and I know this type of thinking isn’t popular amongst Americans, we have to imagine how we can contribute to the commons to mutually benefit (instead of one or two people benefiting, leading to the suffering of others). It’s not socialism, it’s smarter thinking. Just think of the costs we will save on our taxes alone when we don’t have to pay for the inefficiencies of a system full of people trying to cheat it.

We do have great power here. These tools can be used for great things. Solving hunger, poverty, creating peace, boosting economies (in countries where most of the spammer/scammer stuff comes out of), finding cures for bad diseases and all of the other social pitfalls we’ve created by thinking too short term for our world. So…where do we start?

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Categories: community, gov2.0, social capital

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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8 Comments on “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

  1. November 4, 2009 at 07:47 #

    Interesting piece, Tara. I would say the best starting place is with ourselves, since ultimately we can only be held responsible for what we choose to put out into the world. We need to widen the lens of our focus to go further out from ourselves so that we can truly appreciate the repercussions of all our actions – even the little ones – so we can appreciate the impact we have on others. That is, after all, why people spend time hacking other people’s websites, waste time trolling on social sites and so forth – it’s an attempt to measure how much they can impact that they see around themselves.

    Over time, will they see the mutual negative impact it has on us as well as them? Who knows. But if the rest of us choose to focus on impacting others in a beneficial manner instead of a purely self-indulgent one, eventually we’ll drown out all the negatives to the point where they’ll see their tactics no longer bear the impact it once did.


  2. November 4, 2009 at 07:53 #

    “Internalize profit, externalize liability” is successful, if you define “success” as “I’ve got mine, screw you.” Which many, many people do.

  3. November 4, 2009 at 08:14 #

    Great post, Tara!

    Personally, as I’ve gotten older I’ve redefined my vision of success based on these two quotes:

    1)”For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” — Luke 12:48 Or as I paraphrase it, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Comparatively, I have a lot. What am I doing (helping others, etc.) to give back?

    2) “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” -Zig Ziglar

    Of course, this thinking define success and service to others differently than most. It took me a long time to come to the conclusiion that “success” is not all about the money. Unfortunately, not everyone yet agrees. Although, I do see signs of change coming.

  4. November 4, 2009 at 08:45 #

    Nice reading. I’m just happy that it was all cleaned up in a timely fashion for you.

    Someone has always got to spoil the party for everyone else.

  5. November 4, 2009 at 09:27 #


    >> Somehow there is money to be made in ruining the internet.

    Yes, I know…lots of people say we’ve ruined it (the Internet) with LOLcats! :D

    Joking aside, I disagree to an extent with the notion that dialog and being more conscientious will make any meaningful different toward solving this problem.

    Short story: the only way to change the problem is to change the laws of your country.

    Long story: I’m not saying that dialog and conscientiousness aren’t helpful, but the problem lies in the laws that shape our society. More specifically, those laws are designed with the *specific intent* if shaping a _capitalist_ society…and that is a very important distinction.

    Capitalism, by definition, is based upon self-interest. The Tragedy of the Commons, by definition, is based upon placing self-interest over communal-interest.

    Realistically-speaking, practically-speaking, if we want to avoid these Tragedy of the Commons issues we need to work to change the laws that shape the fundamental nature of our society. On other words, we cannot have a community-interested society when the structure and framework upon which it is built is designed to reward self-interest.

    Let me give one simple example: global warming. We can talk all we want about global warming, but it will continue to be a Tragedy of the Commons issue until there is a carbon tax that adds the cost of carbon emissions into goods and services. In other words, we need a law that explicitly places community-interest above self-interest.

  6. November 4, 2009 at 16:09 #

    There is evil in the world, and there always will be. We must protect ourselves and the people we love as best we can, be vigilant and faithful, and help others as we have the opportunity.

    We are fortunate in North America to be burdened with spam and website attacks (I too have had a website hacked). I sponsor some children in other countries who would be so lucky.

    – Matt H

  7. David Janke
    November 5, 2009 at 07:55 #

    Remember… it took the death of a loved on to wake Peter Parker up.

    By engaging in dialogue about long-term consequences, you just end up preaching to the choir (trying to persuade people who, by ?definition of their presence, already agree).

    Think about an analogue: the jerk. A jerk generally doesn’t care that he/she is acting like a jerk… and that’s a big part of what makes him/her a jerk.

    Government regulation would take away a lot of that freedom that make the Web so special. I guess the answer is that we need to be self policing.

    So the real lesson to take from the Spiderman metaphor is… vigilante justice? (but that doesn’t seem right)

  8. missrogue
    November 5, 2009 at 08:24 #


    Oh…I wouldn’t want government regulation on the internet! But they are working on it right now:

    http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/4510/125/ (frightening view into ACTA)

    I’m talking about changing policy, which already exists to encourage certain behaviours. And, as you said, the biggest bit lies in the self-policing. That means we have to start rewarding good behaviour and stop rewarding bad behaviour (spammy stuff).


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