Harry Lewis on Anonymity

Faculty Insight

A busy city crosswalk filled with pedestrians

Harry R. Lewis

Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University

Professor Lewis has long explored the impact of technology on individual freedoms, most recently in his book Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. In this video and Q&A, he explores the concept of anonymity today and what fuels his passion for computer science. 

Professor Harry Lewis discusses anonymity in the digital age

Q&A with Professor Lewis

What do you enjoy most about the field of computer science?

It’s a very unusual field. There are some deep and unchanging principles that all computer scientists should know. At the same time there is incredible dynamism, for two reasons. First, the field is so young that it is still possible for people to come along and discover things that are entirely new.

Second, computer technology advances so quickly—everything becomes bigger, faster, smaller at an incredible pace—things that only a year or two ago were unimaginable for practical reasons suddenly become possible. And those with the best imaginations can make them happen.

What is one way the digital revolution is changing the world as we know it?

Nothing goes away anymore. Who over the age of 40 has copies of all the letters they wrote in junior high school? Who over the age of 40 is worried that some foolish letter they wrote in high school will get uncovered when they apply for a job and come back to haunt them?

Now things far less significant than that—exactly what I bought at the supermarket last Saturday, or which pages within which online magazine I was browsing—are stored away, potentially forever. No one is quite sure how to live in such a world. It’s not necessarily bad, and it’s not necessarily unwelcome. But it sure is different!

...when teaching my Bits course, which is about issues of personal freedom as well as the underlying technology that can both threaten and enhance it, I find my Extension students bring broad perspectives to the class.

Why do you teach at Harvard Extension School?

I greatly enjoy interacting with an older student body that typically has more extensive life experience. Particularly when teaching my Bits course, which is about issues of personal freedom as well as the underlying technology that can both threaten and enhance it, I find my Extension students bring broad perspectives to the class.

Your courses are offered online. What value do you see in online classes?

Distance education is the future. It’s the way Harvard can bring its incomparable intellectual resources to the rest of the world that cannot come to Cambridge.

The Internet has created the opportunity to end the tyranny of distance and physical buildings over the storage and communication of ideas. We don’t know precisely how best to do that yet, but everything happening in distance education at Harvard is a step toward realizing that dream.

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