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."

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.

In this regard, the Internet is the greatest antidote to anti-communitarian forces. Frankly, I find even the most mindless lolcat sites on the Internet to be an improvement over canned-laughter-filled sitcoms. The point of lolcats is not the lolcats themselves, but to share them with friends, comment on them, make more of them, and enter the community via the joke. It's the community, not the cat, that matters. (If you doubt this, try selling a book of lolcats and see how well it does.) I write this review in the aftermath of an atrocity; the assassination attempt in Arizona on a Congresswoman that claimed the lives of six others including a child. Every Internet community I am part of is roiled and there is widespread discussion on most of them about the event. Fifteen years ago, we'd all be watching TV, not communicating with each other.

In November of 2009, a high-school classmate of mine posted a single cryptic Facebook status update indicating that he was spending too much time in the halls of a hospital, eating too much bad food. Many of us immediately inquired what was going on. My friend reluctantly admitted that his wife had developed a rare but potentially fatal disorder of the brain and had been in the hospital for weeks. He was trying to cope, with minimal help. (That's just his personality; kind and understated, he hates being a burden.) Help was organized with lighting speed, ranging from taking care of their two small kids to arranging for meal deliveries, from finding top specialists who could help the family navigate the medical maze (which matters greatly anywhere in the world but especially in Turkey, where my friend is) to an enormous outpouring of support and kind words. I saw a far-flung community coalesce and rise to the occasion. To our collective relief, she pulled through, a fact we all learned through a 23 second video on Facebook, recorded and posted on the day she came out of the coma by her elated husband.

I am fairly sure that this is a very common kind of example (see this Washington Post story for a similar one, unfortunately with a very sad ending). I am also certain that, without social media, it would have been next to impossible for such a large network to be activated. And, yes, before and after this crisis, most of my friend's postings were mundane, included a lot of Farmville, complaints and comments about the weather, and, yes, a lot of Youtube slapstick. (I had, of course, blocked all his Farmville updates.) And yes, this is not an example of political action but of strengthening of community.But to dismiss ordinary interactions of life as narcissism or meaningless is unwarranted, and misunderstands the fundamental functioning of community and the relationship between social communities and civic action.

For the third point, we must go back to the roots of the political disempowerment that has hollowed out most forms of dissent, online or offline. First, most of the existential problems facing humanity are occurring at a global scale (climate change, resource depletion, wars), while our politics remains constricted at the national one. To make matters worse, corporations have increasingly escaped structures of accountability at the national level; increasingly, we live in a world of corporate extraterritoriality where corporations float above the nation-state, at the financial, regulatory, and even personal levels. (Extraterritoriality is a term from colonial times referring to the situation of a person not being subject to the jurisdiction of the laws where he or she resides, i.e., the British in India not subject to Indian law or Americans in Iraq not subject to Iraqi law.) Along with the emergence of peripatetic global elite, very rich and at home in any number of large cosmopolitan cities and disassociated from any one nation or community (see this article in the Atlantic for a striking description of the mindset), it has become very hard for citizens of any given nation-state to confront these powerful global institutions or to start to meaningfully address the multiple global crises facing humanity. And this is where the Internet emerges as a key potential counter-force. Similar to Benedict Anderson's notion of how "print-capitalism" allowed for the emergence of the modern nation -- the "imagined community," as he referred to it -- the Internet is facilitating the emergence of a global public sphere. Call it the Internet-Globalism. The rise of Wikileaks has been instructive in this regard: Jay Rosen has correctly called WikiLeaks the first stateless news organization, and Clay Shirky describes it as truly global, not merely international. Wikileaks is merely one early example of the global nature of politics and is unlikely to be the last. Our new global communities will be complicated, partly based on place and partly on affinities. They'll be global and local and everything in between, and it is only through such communities that we have any hope of reclaiming leverage on institutions of power.

Morozov, however, argues that many people use the Internet to clump even more to their nationalistic or pre-modern identities, that it provides a lifeline to otherwise dying groups and cults. That is true but beside the point. Most new technologies initially empower the already-powerful, who are better placed to take advantage of it, and may also provide a lifeline to marginal practices that otherwise were on their way to being extinguished. The full scale of their disruptive power often comes only after they have been domesticated, and the direction and the scale of the disruption depends crucially on the specifics of the process of domestication. The radio, for example, was completely stripped of its bottom-up power in the process of becoming an everyday technology. While there have been attempts to similarly defang the Internet, we are nowhere there yet.

Much of this can be observed by reminding us of the impact of the printing press when it was new. This new tool initially unleashed some of the same forces that Morozov is using as evidence that the Internet is not liberatory, i.e. the emergence of misinformation, the strengthening of existing institutions, the rise of porn and triviality, the boost to fundamentalism and cults. Indeed, the printing press was at first a boon to the church and for scribes, as there were now many more bibles to decorate by hand, and it also caused an explosion of smut and low-brow materials causing some of the then-elite to proclaim that this technology was reactionary in nature and other dissidents to worry that it would strengthen the church. We know the rest of this story.

Morozov argues that there is no necessary logic of the Internet, or that, to the degree it xists, it strengthens forces of repression. I agree that there is no fixed and immutable logic and I am worried about the corporate takeover of key junctures of the Internet, which has been revealed to be a real threat by the Wikileaks affair (which I wrote about here), but I disagree that we can just declare that the Internet necessarily strengthens forces of repression more than it empowers people.

Through a confluence of design, history, technology and economics, the Internet is amongst the potentially most empowering technologies we've got. Yes, such claims have been made for radio and television before, and, yes, all of this is necessarily speculative. And, yes, net neutrality and corporate and state control of the Internet are crucially important issues in this regard. Still, I believe there are key differences between radio (which was quickly taken over by corporate and state forces) and television which started out as corporate-controlled). Neither of them incorporated the Internet's level of broadcasting power by citizens. Neither of them were based, at least partly, on text and designed for asynchronous mass and interpersonal communication by people, and natively organized at a global level.

I believe that Morozov's point that the Internet strengthens surveillance, censorship and propaganda capacities of the powerful is well-taken. However, the Net also strengthens the capacity of the people to disseminate information, to organize collective action, and to find points of leverage on powerful institutions that have mostly escaped from traditional structures of accountability. As Morozov warns, politics does not happen in a vacuum and the most receptive audience for his book may well be those who are too eager to proclaim that change is just too hard and that the Internet is inevitably destined to become one more tool in the arsenal of the powerful. I'd like propose that the focus should be on how to build the infrastructure of citizen empowerment, while keeping in mind all the warnings in this timely and important book. The Internet is too young, the process still in too early a stage, to give up on it all just yet.

Correction: This essay was originally published under Alexis Madrigal's byline.