Not Yet Deluded: Responses to Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion

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.