Some Thoughts on The Net Delusion

Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion had been on my reading list since it debuted to much fanfare in early 2011.  I left the book with the impression that the author had painted the "cyber-utopians" he so carefully tears apart with too broad a brush by ignoring the nuance of others' arguments while fighting the propagation of substance-deficient general interest news media and politicians' sugarcoated information freedom platitudes.  While necessary at times and supportive of his points, at others it seemed unnecessarily antagonistic.  Overall, The Net Delusion makes clear how easy it is to ignore or obscure the root causes of socio-political problems when we place too much blind faith in the church of techno-evangelism.  Regardless of my inflated expectations and any criticism contained in this post, the book is a must-read.

The author begins by distinguishing cyber-utopians from Internet-centrists, noting that "cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done."  Regardless of these categories and their overlap, the author's main point is that technology is prized over context while these groups rarely acknowledge regional history and embedded cultural dispositions before assuming that a healthy dose of tech will cure all political ills on the path toward citizen-empowered democracy.  The author repeatedly compared the use of social media and the Internet in political movements to the role of photocopiers, fax machines and free radio during the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.  In both cases, technology functioned as a cause of change, not the cause. 

There is much discussion of the 2009 protests in Iran and the so-called "Twitter Revolution."  I felt like the author took the media's use of the term a bit too literally, having to point out that "[t]weets did get sent, and crowds did gather in the streets.  This does not necessarily mean, however, that there was a causal link between the two."  The problem here is with interpretation of the mass media's portrayal of anything, including the Internet.  Casual reading and a failure to critically examine the truth or accuracy of one's information intake isn't anything new or unique to tech-influenced political activity.  However, sometimes it takes a book like this to pick apart the complexity of what's involved and remind us how easy it is to get drunk on catchy rhetorical Kool Aid.

The author's destruction of the fallacy that the Internet is the 21st century battleground for freedom took his point farther than necessary.  While Mr. Morozov correctly dismisses the incompleteness of that view, his criticism would be more constructive if he discussed the ways the Internet functions as an additional or complementary battleground for ideological and political struggles, and not merely setting up an extreme alternative only to knock it down.  Still, the bottom line is clear that the over-reliance on metaphors such as The Great Firewall obscure alternative solutions; the mental image of a wall naturally leads us to first consider knocking it down when a more careful approach might be warranted.

The book shined in its description of the ways authoritarian regimes often sanction or allow entertainment in order to keep people occupied to the point they no longer care about politics.  Or, "a triumph of infinite but shallow intellectual curiosity that might prevent deep, meaningful, spiritual engagement with a particular issue."  Keep the porn and booze flowing and the minds of the proletariat shall remain numb.  Many examples are given of state-sponsored bloggers and volunteer nationalists deployed to influence and steer the digital conversation.  Indeed, crowdsourced censorship exists in democracies as well, with some governments offering ways to report illegal content such as child pornography.  The author's concern is that such applications will start shading into other areas.  With recent legislative proposals (e.g. SOPA) in the US to empower private organizations with the tools to shut down Web sites (with severely limited or zero process), one can only hope that free speech, privacy, sanity and innovation prevail.  Free speech advocates were (more than justifiably) up in arms over the recent declaration by MPAA head Chris Dodd that if Google could censor search results in China, why not here?  Such a ridiculous statement confuses the "how" with the "what" by ignoring the technical, procedural and substantive flaws of such a proposal.  Let's also remember Google pulled out of the country, among other obvious jaw-dropping implications of that statement.

Getting back to the book: Most digital activism is put into the bucket of slacktivism, where groups form ad nauseum and people find an easy way out of true engagement by merely clicking a button to show support or donating a few bucks.  The author acknowledges that these may be valuable activities for certain issues but at some point, awareness must be converted to action.  The discussion of why some crowds are wise but lazy is helpful in reminding us that larger groups often impose less social pressure on individuals due to the assumption that someone else will pick up the slack.  True enough, but these too are not new or unique problems.  The task-oriented decentralization of many online activities isn't analyzed, nor are other action-oriented ways of achieving the author's objectives, beyond a call for "smart regulation" and "cyber-realism." 

In sum, this book provides a clear diagnosis but leaves the reader wanting to know the cure.  "The truth is that many of the opportunities created by a free-for-all anonymous Internet culture have been creatively exploited by people and networks that undermine democracy."  This is absolutely true and plenty of examples are given.  Yet if both authoritarian and Western approaches to Internet regulation leave so much to be desired, the author implicitly places too much confidence in the hands of regulators and others to avoid the pitfalls he identifies.  I'm hoping for a sequel that provides more action-oriented suggestions cast in a more positive, optimistic light.  Either way, read this one.

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