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an interesting, but overly-pessimist, look at the relationship between Net & global politics
on January 4, 2011
In The Net Delusion, Morozov positions himself the ultimate Net "realist," aiming to bring a dose of realpolitik to discussions about how much of a difference the Net and digital technologies make to advancing democracy and freedom. His depressing answer: Not much. Indeed, Morozov's book is one big wet blanket on the theory that "technologies of freedom" can help liberate humanity from the yoke of repressive government.
Morozov clearly relishes his skunk at the garden party role, missing few opportunities to belittle those who subscribe to such theories. If you're one of those who tinted your Twitter avatar green as an expression of solidarity with Iranian "Green Movement" dissidents, Morozov's view is that, at best, you're wasting your time and, at worst, you're aiding and abetting tyrants by engaging in a form of "slacktivism" that has little hope of advancing real regime change. The portrait he paints of technology and democracy is a dismal one in which cyber-utopian ideals of information as liberator are not just rejected but inverted. He regards such "cyber-utopian" dreams as counter-productive, even dangerous, to the advance of democracy and human freedom.
Much of the scorn he heaps on the cyber-utopians is well-deserved, although I think there are far fewer of them around than Morozov imagines. Nonetheless, there certainly is a bit too much Pollyanna-ish hyper-optimism at play in debates about the Net's role in advancing liberation of those peoples who are being subjected to tyrannical rule across the planet.
But Morozov simply doesn't know when to quit. His relentless and highly repetitive critique goes well overboard. We can all agree that technology is just one of many tools that can be harnessed to keep the power of the State in check or advance important civic / charitable causes; other factors and forces play an even more important role in promoting democracy and, in particular, ending tyranny. Yet, in his zeal to counter those who have placed too great an emphasis on the role of information technology, Morozov himself has gone too far in the opposite extreme in The Net Delusion by suggesting that technology's role in transforming States or politics is either mostly irrelevant or even, at times, counter-productive.
The more profound problem with Morozov's thesis is that, if he is correct that the Net poses such risks, or undermines the cause of democracy-promotion, isn't the logical recommendation that flows from it technology control or entertainment repression? He never really makes it clear how far he'd go to put the information genie back in the bottle since he simply refuses to be nailed down on specifics int he book. But his tone throughout the book -- speaking of the Net as "a great danger," and "a threat" with many "negative side effects" -- seems to suggest that some form of technological control or information repression may be necessary.
Morozov is on somewhat stronger footing in highlighting the paradoxical danger of voluntary information exposure in an age of ubiquitous digital connectivity and communications. But let's say it is true that social networking tools and other digital technologies which allow greater online personalization and socialization also potentially facilitate increased government surveillance by the State. What are we to do about that? Again, he doesn't really say.
He also scores some points for rightly pointing to the hypocrisy at play in the United States today -- by both government and corporations --" when it comes to the promotion of Net freedom globally. American leaders in both government and business need to better align their actions with their rhetoric when it comes to the interaction of government and technology. Too often, both groups are guilty of talking a big game about the Internet and freedom, only to later take steps to undermine that cause. But, strangely, he continues on to suggest that we should simply get used to the increasing politicization of the Net, even though it's unclear how that would help his cause.
To summarize, Morozov is quite right about the excessive euphoria currently surrounding the relationship of the Net to politics and regime change, but I think he's gone a bit overboard in The Net Delusion.
[My complete review of Morozov's "Net Delusion" can be found on the Technology Liberation Front Blog]