Tonight I chaired a public lecture by Evgeny Morozov, who is on a book tour with his The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World.
The book argues that, in the hype about the democratic potential of the Internet, we have overlooked the technology’s capacity to control dissent and even to support authoritarianism. The internet, despite our hopes, doesn’t automatically establish democratic communications in repressive regimes. Thus, we should make better internet policy that looks at the contexts in which technologies operate.
I’m not sure I agree. I thought that the proclamations of cyber-utopia and the attendant disappointment when the reality fell short of the vision had been consigned to history at the end of the 1990s. Surely, it is now possible to see that the Internet and the multitudes of social connections that it produces could be either positive or negative, or surely both positive or negative, depending on the context? Is there a technology on earth that would be guaranteed to bring freedom and democracy without any of the bad stuff?
Regardless, the book presents some interesting new examples of how everyday people, activists, corporations and even authoritarian governments can use the opportunities of social media – for both good and evil. The general narrative of these examples goes like this: “activists use social networking sites to mobilize, and the rich data about connections that is generated helps them to situate their activism so it includes more links and connections than in the past. HOWEVER, all those links and connections create data that evildoers (corporations or authoritarian governments) can use to track down those activists and dissidents.” The more interesting examples cover the way that policy structures play into this duality – for example how existing policies are threatened by digital practice, or changed because of it. Morozov also highlights how this “cyber-utopianism” and “internet-centrism” limit effective policy making by being too techno-centric.
There’s a weird way that the book falls into the same technological determinism it claims to decry. If you didn’t imagine to begin with that the internet was going to be a democratic force, it wouldn’t be such a surprise that it wasn’t. And further, the ‘democratization’ in question seems to be primarily American-style representative democracy, rather than radical participative democracy or media democracy – which you could argue adopt some of the internet’s opportunities.
The book dabbles in philosophy and popular culture, nodding at Kierkegaard and titling a chapter “Orwell’s Favorite LOLcat” but it lacks a sustained and deep theory of media. Despite the length (400 pages) it reads as a collection of anecdotes that ultimately fails to develop a sustained policy critique based in a theory of what is unique about the internet. This is a shame, since Morozov has strong expertise in internet advocacy in many non-Western contexts.
Beyond the simple premise, I had one other serious misgiving about the book. Even though there is a bibliography for each chapter, none of the direct quotations in the text are cited. This is no petty academic quibble – without a citation for a direct quote, it’s impossible for me to find the original work and judge Morozov’s interpretation of it.
I’m glad to see how this book captures the increasingly reflective zeitgeist of American geeks and cheered that Morozov thinks we need better policy (who doesn’t!). But I encourage Morozov to dig a little deeper, push a little further, in his future writing.
Thank you for a very interesting critique. I’m reading the book now and was really disappointed not to make tonight’s lecture but I got stuck at work. (Incidentally do you know if Morozov gave permission for a podcast to be made available?)
I’m coming at this from outside of academia (and I’ll plead guilty to also lacking a sustained and deep theory of media and a host of other critical failings!) so please forgive a very naive reading from a concerned amateur in this field.
The feeling I’ve got so far is that the book is mostly about the foreign policy implications for the US in attempting to topple / open up oppressive regimes around the world. My personal interest is in the benefits for increasing participation in already democratic societies and here I get the feeling that the author is more optimistic although this is incidental to the main force of his thesis.
As I continue with the book, I’ll be doing so with your points above in mind.
Thanks for your comment Tim,
Too bad you missed the lecture – it was very good. I believe it will be podcast.
One thing that Morozov and I agree on is that creating democracy is hard work – and across history we’ve seen that people have pinned their hopes for it on different forms of media. What we’ve also seen is that when conditions are right, people can work with what the media affords to make great change. But it has to come from the people, not the technology. In this sense you have an easier project because you’re working in an already democratic society – even if it’s not a participatory one.
Thank you Alison.
Your research looks fascinating. As soon as I can, I’m going to put aside some time to take a look at some of the publications you’ve listed on your research page.
I was so glad to read this. The endless anecdotes and somewhat-substantiated pronouncements during his lecture were becoming a bit much. I do hope to read the book in its entirety soon, as he made some very valid points about the Internet’s use as a tool against democracy. However, I ultimately disagree with his determinist, destructive conclusion.
I was hoping to hear an argument about the use of the Internet by corporations and large interest groups to create astroturf campaigns to simulate democratic political participation.
Thanks for posting.
This book couldn’t have been released at a better time…from a promotional perspective. I can’t read anything about Egypt or the internet without coming across a reference to Morozov. It’s getting annoying.
Like you said, most of us are cyber-realists, if optimistic ones. But instead of grappling with this nuance, Morozov rails against a straw man just like Gladwell did in his New Yorker piece. I’m not aware of anyone serious who thinks the internet can’t be abused by governments, or that Twitter toppled Mubarak.
I found it interesting in the lecture how Morozov described himself as a true believer in the power of social media to transform closed societies…until he started working in them. His curmudgeonly tone betrays the pessimism that often haunts disenchanted former evangelists.
I do think he makes an important contribution to the debate. But the breadth of his argument is drowned out by the needlessly provocative way the book’s been quoted/promoted. In this sense, the allusive title is apt. Maybe Morozov hopes to become the Richard Dawkins of net naysayers?
Anyway, this is a great review…it neatly and convincingly summarized a lot of thoughts and frustrations that had been aimlessly bouncing around my brain.
P.S. Just came across this recent Jay Rosen post while seeking more outlets for my frustration 😉 http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/
It is perfect.