Digital DIFFIDENCE puts us at risk

It’s not entirely unusual for anyone to feel a bit diffident about something they’re not especially familiar or comfortable with. And there’s no question that a large number of us, particularly if we’ve grown up before it became normal to have one of our ears permanently adjacent to a mobile phone, or our eyes constantly glued to a screen of one sort or another, feel at least a degree of unfamiliarity or discomfort with today’s all-pervasive digital technology – and some find it positively intimidating. So it’s hardly surprising that many people approach these technologies with considerable diffidence.

But our diffidence can make us vulnerable. Being hesitant and lacking confidence in our own understanding can make us easy prey for those who seek to take advantage of our sense of ignorance and inferiority for their own purposes. They play on this to earn our trust. And because they are skilful and understand the mentality of their victims, they are able to earn our gratitude for the ‘assistance’ that they are providing to us, even as they are exploiting us.

Of course, this phenomenon isn’t unique to the online world. In every walk of life, those who appear confident in their knowledge and abilities – with or without justification – are frequently able to convince others who are more circumspect and reserved to follow their lead. Just look at the world of politics. Digital technologies simply extend this further into a new context. However, because of the power and reach of these technologies, the remote nature of the interactions which they promote, meaning that other clues humans normally use to help us detect if someone is attempting to trick us, like body language and facial expressions, don’t come into play, as well as the fact that so many aspects of the technologies are mysterious and unknown to vast numbers of us, the potential for the digitally diffident to be exploited in the online arena is truly enormous.

So what can we do in response? Becoming less diffident is all very well in theory, but as a deeply engrained personal characteristic is likely to be hugely difficult in practice. The answer seems to lie in raising our awareness of the risks which accompany the technologies. It makes sense that if we choose to use the technologies, we should have a good appreciation of the potential threats that they may bring; and thereby putting us in a much better position to recognize when our diffidence is being exploited.

By way of a postscript to this, it’s worth noting that the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the term ‘Diffidence’ in a rather different way, to refer to the uneasiness and anxiety that many individuals have about their own security in a dangerous world. He saw this as one of the key factors that would lead to constant conflict and chaos in the absence of an effective rule of law, where the strong and ambitious are continually looking to take advantage of the weak; in the face of such anxiety, Hobbes contended that the diffident would react in an ‘aggressively defensive’ way towards the threats they faced, thus fuelling the conflict.

Such a perspective appears highly pertinent in the context of today’s online world, some aspects of which – lacking in adequate regulation - display a significant degree of lawlessness, and where some individuals are seeking to exploit others for their own advantage. In the online world, however, it seems that rather than resisting, the diffident may often not realise that they are at risk of exploitation, and are unduly passive in response to the threat. In reality, they would benefit from reacting more aggressively, in the way Hobbes expected the ‘Diffident’ to do.

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