Delusions Aside, the Net's Potential Is Real

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Evgeny Morozov's new book, The Net Delusion, is an important contribution; its publication has been widely welcomed as an important correction to cyber-utopianism, and greeted with laudatory reviews. I found myself agreeing with the majority of its arguments.

But I write here neither to praise nor bury the book, but to engage it critically. Morozov challenges the intellectual laziness that characterizes so many analyses of the Internet's impact, which do tend to be on the utopian side. That is well, but just as cyber-utopianism is fashionable in some circles, it's equally fashionable in others to pooh-pooh the fundamentally transformative impact of the Internet, denying it any great world-historical importance. To some intellectuals, the mundanity of human sociality exposed through the Internet deserves to be mocked, and people's sincere attempts to express their identity and convictions through online methods are derided as meaningless "slactivism."

To me, all this is not only intellectually lazy, but it is the mark of the cultural old guard--cynical, dismissive and surrendered to the status-quo. I am afraid that this book will be received by that crowd with gleeful acceptance. "Oh, yes, old chap, the Internet isn't going to change anything; it's where the riff-raff go to talk about their breakfast and laugh at silly cats."

Through a confluence of design, history, technology and economics, the Internet is amongst the potentially most empowering technologies we've got.

I am not saying that Morozov does this. He is thoughtful and clearly racking his brain to find ways to better the world. But his dismissiveness of the ways in which the Internet can be part of a challenge to authoritarianism and promote citizen empowerment leaves the argument unbalanced and misleading. In the current politico-cultural context, this lopsidedness fits too smoothly with elite cynicism and disdain for change.

All this is not to say that Morozov does not make many excellent points. For example, his criticism of the U.S. State Department's push for "Internet Freedom" as a tool for promoting U.S. interests, err, democracy, is clearly on-target; I think the Wikileaks saga has settled that debate.

A large chunk of the book is devoted to pointing out that the Internet can be used to strengthen the trifecta of authoritarianism: surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. Your social media imprint can implicate you much more easily than an army of secret police. It is possible to selectively censor the Internet (though I think this only goes so far). And most importantly, the Internet opens new channels for state propaganda as well as state-sponsored and corporate astro-turfing. While all these points are true, I do think Morozov underestimates the ecological effect of the Internet in potentially undermining the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes. Crushing of dissidents individually may certainly help an authoritarian regime remain in power in the short term, but too much repression, coupled with an unhappy citizenry that is able to share their displeasure with one another, can hollow out a regime's legitimacy, ultimately crippling its capacity for repression, as there is almost no purely coercive regime. In other words, while increased capacity for surveillance may be a very real threat to individual dissidents, broadening the repressive apparatus often ultimately backfires, especially under conditions with lower barriers to collective action and information diffusion, both of which are promoted by the Internet.

Distraction can also be an ally of authoritarian regimes. As Morozov points out, the vast amount of entertainment available on the Web can be depoliticizing and demobilizing. This is also true, but also only up to a point. Entertainment can only go so far if a regime is unable to provide the basic foundations of legitimacy, which almost always includes the necessities for life and often extends to freedom and personal autonomy. Still, capitalism's immense capacity to trivialize and commercialize everything, including dissent, is indeed worrisome and highlights the importance of strengthening the non-profit, non-commercial infrastructure of the Internet.

Most of my divergence with Morozov about what is actually in the book come in his discussion of slactivism and social media. Yes, online petitions and "like" buttons do not work to bring about social change. Everyone has figured that out and I really do not see anyone substantive on the cyber-utopian side arguing that they are that important. I believe this has become is a convenient strawman allowing the literati (like, say, Malcolm Gladwell) to proclaim, "I'm too sophisticated for lolcats."

But I disagree that the reason online protests do not work is that they are online, or they are easy. The reality, at this juncture in history, is that nothing really works. The Internet is not the problem; global citizen disempowerement is. It's not the technology that is failing politics but it is our politics that has failed.

If this is an exaggeration, it is only a slight one. A massive grassroots campaign to elect a president who would have been unthinkable as a viable candidate just an election cycle before seems to have produced fairly little change in day-to-day dealings inside the Beltway: Lobbyists and corporate interests still dominate. Street protests don't work, as shown by the lead-up to the Iraq war, and demonstrated again by the current situation in Europe wherein national governments are destroying public infrastructure to please global finance capital. Letter-writing doesn't work. Online petitions don't work. Email campaigns don't work. Consumer boycotts don't work. Naming and shaming corporations who commit egregious abuses or fraud or massive environmental damage doesn't work. Anyone think BP is going out of business?

Political activism is not failing because people are too busy watching cat videos online, but because of a fundamental collapse of citizen leverage on institutions of power like governments and corporations. I find it ironic that, after correctly warning about the dangers of an Internet-centric worldview in which everything is perceived through the prism of the Net, Morozov himself is caught in a net-centric analysis of political activism's decline.

If surveillance, censorship and propaganda are the three pillars of authoritarianism, information, organization and leverage are the counter-pillars of citizen power. And the Internet provides the best and most appropriate infrastructure for strengthening all three. Morozov correctly claims that it does not do so in an unmitigated manner but unmitigated is not the same as ineffective or irrelevant.

First, the preponderance of lolcats and other trivialities on the Internet does not reveal that something has changed about people; it just reveals the reality of human nature. Seriously, does anyone think most people used to discuss Rawls over breakfast before the Internet? Social grooming, jokes, noting birthdays and other rituals, small talk, well-wishes, personal tidbits, weather, food, children and a little bit of information... Sorry, folks, that's humanity for you. I find Morozov's discussion of social media and narcissism to be among the weakest parts of his book--such fears, so commonly expressed, are part moral panic, part exaggeration and part cohort-effect (i.e. people who don't use the new medium in a manner indigenous to it, don't get it and proclaim, "kids these days...")

Second, mundane social interactions form the basis of community-formation, which is the key to subsequent social and political action. Communities have been eroded, not by the Internet, but by television which locks us into passive, isolated cubicles and bombards us with content, most of which is explicitly designed to encourage consumerism, passivity and superficiality; by suburbanization that isolates families from each other, from work, and from the world; and by the increasingly stressful and long work hours which leave very little time for anything else.

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Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She writes regularly at her personal site, Technosociology.

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