Who’s Responsible for a Stand Alone Complex?

If you are a citizen of the Internet at the time of this posting, you are probably aware of the ongoing battle between The Oatmeal cartoonist Matthew Inman and FunnyJunk laywer Charles Carreon. The most recent development is that Carreon is threatening litigation against everyone involved in what he calls a “distributed internet reputational attack.” As a proud geek this instantly made me think of one thing: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

What we have here is almost exactly like a stand alone complex. A bunch of people all independently engaged in a similar activity. Their actions accumulated together to create one large effect without formal coordination or organization.

In this particular instance we can largely support the actions of this mass without guilt. Other than some crazies that sent death threats, I’m sure most people involved are only guilty of posting funny things on the Internet. For the sake of discussion, what if they had all done bad things?

For example, pretend that thousands of people each stole one dollar from Carreon’s bank account? You could go after each person individually, but stealing $1 is barely a crime. Also, there are so many people that the cost of getting any individual will be way more than the dollar that was stolen. Yet, their accumulated actions have cause a large amount of damage.

You could go after Inman, as he is the only thing that could be called a leader or instigator, but he is not personally guilty of any wrongdoing. He’s only guilty of posting funny things on the Internet and collecting money for charity. He never told people to commit crimes, so how can he be responsible for the independent actions of others? That would be like holding a sports team responsible for the actions of their supporting hooligans.

If you think it’s tough when the only person who can be called an instigator is innocent, it can get even harder when there is no human instigator. What happens when people act in unison without any coordination or organization, an no single source initiated the action?

What happens when people learn how to instigate complexes while keeping it impossible to prove that they did so? You could say that Inman knew that his perfectly innocent actions would cause his followers to act in such a way, so he could theoretically have intentionally instigated them. Yet, there is still no way to prove that he did because instigation and innocence are identical, unless you have the ability to read minds.

The only example of battling complexes we have to go on is the case of Anonymous. Anonymous is not as stand alone as they pretend to be. They have some sort of organization, digital meeting places, and there are members with higher profiles than others. A true complex doesn’t even have a name or community. Despite Anonymous having some amount of organization, fights against them have still been fruitless. Sure, some people have been caught, but the entity still exists and acts without those members. If they were all truly stand alone, it is likely none of them would have ever been caught.

Our society has no real way to deal with anything remotely resembling a stand alone complex. A victim of a complex, whether deserved or not, has almost no recourse other than to hope for another such complex to spring up and act in their favor. What kind of societal structure can we devise that can repair or prevent harm from complexes that aren’t as agreeable as ones involving jpegs on the Internet? Soon we will see a day when something like this happens that we can’t all agree on being just and wonderful.

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