Reading Peter Steiner’s Internet dog

How are we to read Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”? It wasn’t an editorial cartoon, so Steiner wasn’t trying to make a point. I believe he was just trying to be funny.

Why is the Internet dog funny? I think it’s because dogs are mischievous, especially the ordinary muts in question. Dogs chew your slippers when you’re not looking. So imagine the fun they’d have on the Internet. They would probably sell your slippers given the chance on eBay.

Technologists especially latched onto the cartoon and gave it deeper meanings, especially relating to “trust”. Whether or not the cartoon triggered it, it did coincide with a rush of interest in the topic. Through most of the 1990s, hoards of people became preoccupied with “trust” as a precondition for e-business. Untold hours were spent researching, debating, deconstructing and redefining “trust”, as if the human race didn’t already understand it.

Was there ever really any mystery about trust? Did the advent of the Internet truly demand such earnest reappraisal? No.

We should read the Steiner cartoon as being all about fidelity not trust. It goes without saying that you wouldn’t trust a dog. The challenge online is really pretty prosaic: it is to tell what the other party is. Trust then follows from that knowledge, in context.

I maintain that by and large we trust people well enough in the real world. There’s no end of conventions, rules and instincts for establishing trust, none perfect, but good enough, and of course, evolving all the time. It’s true that establishing trust in new business relationships is subtle and multi-pathed, but in routine business transactions — the sort that the Internet is good for — trust is not subtle at all. The only thing that matters in most transactions is the parties’ formal credentials (not even their identities) in the context at hand. For example, a pharmacist doesn’t “trust” the doctor as such when filling a prescription. Medicos, accountants, engineers, bankers, lawyers, architects and so on have professional qualifications that authorise them to perform certain transactions. Consider that in the traditional mercantile world, the shopkeeper or sales assistant is typically a total stranger, but we know that consumer protection legislation, credit card agreements and big companies’ reputations all keep us safe. So we don’t actually “trust” most people we do business with at all. We don’t have to.

There is an old Italian proverb that perfectly sums up most business:

It is good to trust, but it is better not to.

That should be the defining slogan of Internet sociology, not “nobody knows you’re a dog”. If we weren’t over-doing trust, the transition from real world to digital would not be so daunting, and the foundational concepts of identity would not need re-defining.