Customer Reviews: The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
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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]
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on January 6, 2011
The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov is an instant-classic in the field of technology studies that will be of interest to both serious scholars of the global Internet and those interested in making sense of the widespread excitement about using technology for advancing goals such as individual freedom.

Morozov's starting point is the belief, promoted by everyone from world leaders to prominent bloggers, that the Internet is an emancipatory agent. Millions of dollars have been spent guided by the belief that if unfettered Internet access is made available globally, especially in repressive countries, democracy will prevail because citizens will be empowered to speak freely, coordinate politically, etc. Morozov convincingly argues that the truth is far more nuanced and difficult. Although much of the rhetoric and policy in this area comes from the belief that technology has been an essential tool in promoting individual freedom throughout history, most notably being arguments about samizdat's role in ending the Cold War, Morozov provides a very readable explanation of how this metaphorical thinking is misguided.

Instead, he argues that the Internet is subject to the power of the state and therefore is largely impotent as a mechanism for promoting democracy. He shows that throughout the world, the Internet is a) more likely to be used for entertainment purposes, b) censored in ways that are not easily surmountable, c) used a tool for propaganda by both governments and individuals that are not pro-West, and d) used for spying on dissidents.

The Net Delusion is thoroughly entertaining throughout, but that doesn't stop it from digging into some very serious subjects. The final chapters provide an excellent explanation of the history and philosophy of technology - tough subjects that are rarely considered, least of all in such an approachable manner. Finally, Morozov closes with what he calls a cyber-realist manifesto to guide thinking going forward. There are certainly bits to quibble with throughout the book, but overall, it is an excellent work and highly recommended.
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Social studies scholar Evgeny Morozov may occasionally be cranky and stylistically conflicted, but his original arguments provide refreshing insights. He debunks nearly religious beliefs about the intrinsically positive power of the Internet and total information access. Morozov demonstrates how propagating this optimistic view of the web drowns out more subtle positions and keeps governmental and societal attention focused on less meaningful activities. getAbstract recommends this worthy polemic to those engaged in cyberculture, those trying to decipher cultural change, and those dedicated to understanding and promoting freer societies.
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on May 1, 2013
This book's title is obviously a play on words and echoes Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion." I don't exactly mind the fact that this author is so long-winded because his prose is very easy to follow. He does overstate his case a bit, but what I come away with is:

1. New terms. Internet-centrism (don't try to reinterpret every single problem in terms of how it can be solved by the internet) and cyber-utopianism (don't imagine that the internet will lead to every single perfect outcome just because you think it will). Samizdat? (I'd never heard of that word before. But it is in the Oxford Dictionary.)

2. The use of the internet as a tool can go both ways. So, interest groups can learn to organize with it. But whatever government that happens to be in power in whatever place can also learn to use that tool in its own service.

3. McDonald's is a quintessentially American invention and it is everywhere. And no one sees it as such because the State Department of the US government does not make any connections or try to use it as a tool. The internet is the same way, and it was neutral at some point....but companies that provide internet services can be seen as an instrument of subversion if the State Department tries to enlist their services on its behalf. (Ever wondered why Twitter and Youtube are blocked in China? You don't need to wonder anymore after reading the first chapter of this book.)

4. The Iranian "Revolution" was completely fictional. Or, the presentation of it was the composite of a lot of wishful thinking.

There is a lot of what we (this reader) already knew:

1. There are a lot of unintended consequences to any policy. And this could be deduced from the unintended consequences of a lot of things that have already gone down (that the author detailed) and that we might expect (because no two countries are quite the same);

2. Most of the policymakers in the United States ("The West") don't really know what they are doing and are very likely guilty of over optimism.

3. Basically policymakers don't know what they are doing and act on flawed models. One of the concepts that he introduced was the difference between "wicked" and "tame" problems. But I feel that the issue of decision making was covered much better in Thomas Sowell's Knowledge And Decisions

4. It is not appropriate to treat political problems (with political constraints and incentives) as internet problems. We already knew that.

There is some subtle discussion of the epistemic perspectives on populaces under authoritarian government. What Morozov gives is a Huxley-Orwell axis. On one end, the population is strangled by consumerism and popular goods. And on the other, it is strangled by an invasive bureaucracy that is reading mail and tapping phone calls. Our writers shows that this is likely to be a false dichotomy and that some elements of both can be mixed. A regime can keep people so busy watching TV that they don't have time to know what is going on (and I have witnessed this) but then censor the internet and block blogs that might distract them from watching TV.

I'd say that this book could be taken out in about 3 afternoons (100 pages each). Or, for a more leisurely pace it should not take more than 6 afternoons of reading time. There are quite a few concepts in here, and the way that the author organized them needed some help. On one hand, some of the concepts were organized in bite sized pieces that took about 15 minutes to read. But on the other hand, he kept repeating the same overarching concepts AGAIN AND AGAIN within the sub-chapters. The chapters averaged about 35 pages each.
Verdict: If the book was 225 pages, I could say that it would have been worth the reading time. But this author just waffled on way too long repeating the same things OVER AND OVER.
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on January 8, 2011
The Net Delusion is the first non-academic book to place the Internet in the proper geopolitical and historical settings. It's written by someone who has deep familiarity with latest developments in both global affairs and technology - and the resulting book is an extremely well-informed text that provides a much-needed correction to some of the wild and irresponsible cyber-utopian claims of pundits like Tom Friedman or Clay Shirky.

The Net Delusion was a pleasure to read. Morosov is a skillful and funny narrator with a dark sense of humor (perhaps, the product of his Eastern European roots?) who is amazingly well-read; the book builds on fields as diverse as sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and history but is also rich in examples and anecdotes - it never gets boring. I found Morosov's insights into the Cold War roots of the current e-euphoria are particularly enlightening...

Morosov doesn't shy from controversy, providing one of the sharpest critiques of the US government's affair with "Internet freedom" to date (The Net Delusion makes a convincing case that in the long term it's likely to cause more harm than good to the broader democratic project). Silicon Valley gets plenty of bad rap too - for its complicity in enabling censorship in countries like China, in stealing user privacy, in facilitating surveillance by aurhotriaan governments...

The Net Delusion manages to pull off the impossible: to simultaneously appeal to geeks who read Wired and policy wonks who read Foreign Affairs - and to remain highly readable throughout. Solid five-stars.
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on April 10, 2015
I saw this book on a reading list and got it on Kindle to see what it was about. Morozov does a great job opening the reader's eyes to the pitfalls in thinking that the internet automatically equals freedom and democracy (he calls it "internet centrism"). However, he reveals his own bias against technology with very haughty, undocumented statements about how "technical experts" best stay in their lane and leave the big international relation problems to the real experts.

Morozov has a narrow view of the internet and its community; he only ever references Twitter and Facebook when discussing mediums that can foster democratization and bring the global community together. In other words, he completely ignores reddit, anonymous, message boards, and video game communities that bring a very diverse population together without concern for borders. Further, he really only cites the US State Department affiliates in the Bush and Obama era for why internet-centrism is a bad thing. He cites the embarrassments and hypocrisy of Clinton as Secretary of State in her application of the internet to free authoritarian societies (Iran's failed "twitter revolution") without considering if those problems had more to do with her than it does any alleged inherent flaws of a consistent, rational approach to using the internet to improve the freedom in the world. He does not give due diligence in finding out what other perspectives there are on the issue. I would have liked to see him reach out to Google, EFF, anonymous, or founders of the open source movement for comment.

Morozov argues that "Facebook causes" and tweets in support of awareness are actually hurting causes more than helping them by giving the west a way to feel less guilty without actually doing anything. However, there is more to the internet than just a Facebook Like. He compares the internet to previous advances in technology that always fell short on their claims to globalize the world: TV, the telegram, the radio, and so on. There is a lot that is wrong with the internet;but unlike these previous technologies, the internet provides a way for individuals all over the world to come together on even ground without regard for national boundaries or nationalistic biases and build strong communities that actually are willing to intervene. And unlike Facebook causes that don't actually do anything, often times these communities do mobilize into real protests when they find something they believe in (look up the anonymous documentary that shows this happen on many occasions).

I thought this quote on page 311 was a good summary Morozov's bias and poor investigation in the end of the book: "Technological experts, as clever as they may be on matters concerning technology, are rarely familiar with the complex social and political context in which the solutions they propose are to be implemented" (311).

The author then goes on to build on this claim without ever once giving support for what technical expert(s) he is referring to that, to paraphrase, is a great code monkey but should stay out of the big boy's world of real complex problems. I can only speculate that he is referring to top Google executives that are deeply involved in the political world. Yet I would argue that as executives in a corporation with headquarters (and thus interactions with governments) all over the world, a Google exec is far more qualified to weigh in on complex global issues than Morozov is.

Near the end of the book, Morozov says it is rare for an intellectual to "know a great deal about both the Internet and the rest of the world." I would say that Morozov cannot be included in this group of "rare intellectuals," for his understanding of the internet is not nearly deep enough to be critiquing it.

I will say that his outline of what he calls "internet realism" at the end is worth keeping in mind, but I disagree with his suggestion that a mature internet is one that is heavily regulated by nation-states.
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on December 22, 2011
A very provocative book with a cautionary message. Evgeny Morozov puts to work his own experience with post-Communist countries and with the internet to give a cold shower against "cyber-utopianism" and "internet-centrism" : the position taken, de facto or in words, by Western media and governments, that the internet will make crumble the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in places such as China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Belarus or Russia. Though informed by the experience of the underground press and Western radio stations transmitted to the Iron Curtain countries, Morozov argues this approach minimizes the differences in circumstances between the 1989 revolutions and the "Twitter revolutions" of today, both in the actual characteristics of the technologies and in the social, political and cultural situations of the countries involved. The book is loaded with examples to show the dangers of overconfidence in one or another aspect of the internet as it pertains to political and social change, but also as it relates to concerns that honest citizens and officials, in democratic or authoritarian countries alike, have: use of the internet for fraud, identity theft, compromising national security, or helping offline crime. The main problem with this book is that as rich as it is in precedents, it fails to deliver proposals. By insisting on the study of particular national circumstances, it justifies a lack of specific proposals to attack the issues that dissidents and activists inside or their allies outside face in the real world. In this, it turns out somewhat disappointing. However, the arguments that the internet has as many counter-democratic as democratic uses, and that the internet has to be evaluated in context and not for its own sake, are solid and well built; and policymakers and activists ignore them at their peril.
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on November 23, 2011
While Morozov's goal, to provide a corrective to all the hype, punditry and 'cyber-utopianism' surrounding much of the discourse of the debate on the Internet and political change his book 'The Net Delusion' is little more than a rambling diatribe. Considering Moorozov is a Professor at Stanford University one would have expected that his analysis would be systematic, considered, balanced and academically rigorous. Far from it. Morozov mostly relies on opinion as fact, providing little if any substantiation of the numerous assertions he makes about the Internet. He asserts for example that the Internet makes it "considerably easier" (p. 117) to produce and disseminate government propaganda in authoritarian regimes basing this on nothing more than the fact that Hugo Chavez chose to start using Twitter. What this assertion completely misses is that while it might make it cheaper and easier it is certainly less effective than propaganda was in an era where state controlled TV, radio and newspapers were the only source of mass information. Today's audiences are no longer either captive or passive. They can 'fact' check such disinformation, lampoon and parody it, or simply ignore it. Indeed in one chapter Morozov discounts the impact of the Internet by arguing that everyone is too busy downloading pirate movies, watching pornography and sharing pictures of cute cats to take any notice of intellectuals and dissidents, but then seemingly contradicts himself by subsequently arguing that governments can "reinforce their ideological supremacy". Furthermore in over 300 pages of text there are no citations or footnotes, no quantitative data, little if any primary research and so forth. Moreover Morozov 'cherry picks' the cases he selects to dismiss the democratizing effects of the Internet choosing to focus on 'failures' such as the Green Revolution in Iran rather than on cases that could be presented alternatively as successes. Finally his deeply skeptical view of the Internet seems somewhat at odds with the events of 2011 in which Internet activism played a contributory role in helping to coordinate protestors and demonstrators across the Arab world in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
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on March 8, 2014
Prone to pithy codas—"It's as if the Mad Men have set up an office in Beijing"—as well as name and theory dropping (presumably those who still have 24x7 Internet access will run off to look them up) but otherwise a scathing review of misplaced optimism for the Internet, and how somewhat not democratic systems can run circles around the now cold warriors of an bygone era (firewalls! in cyberspace!) by co-opting technology, embracing counterspin, and even the use of modern Western marketing techniques to better control their populace. I am reminded of the old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin offers a tepid bowl of tapioca to the television. America does no better, banning software and services to certain countries, while the other hand feeds the dissidents of said countries, who cannot use the necessary software or services because they are banned—a computer would segfault at this point; humans must make do with the facepalm. But I must run; there is a cute cat photo I really have to see. No, actually, yet more security updates to apply. Sigh.

Internet Plumber
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on March 15, 2011
Growing up in Belarus and then living in the US, Mr Morozov has had opportunities to view the Internet from 'both sides'. He has seen at first hand both authoritarian attempts at controlling the spread of the Internet and libertarian attempts at maintaining the Internet's growth throughout the world.

This experience has allowed him to develop some useful views. He contrasts attitudes to the Internet basically between 'cyber-utopians' and 'cyber-cons'. The former he defines as those who have:

'...a quasi-religious belief in the power of the Internet to do supernatural things, from eradicating illiteracy in Africa to organizing all of the world's information...Opening up closed societies and flushing them with democracy juice until they shed off their authoritarian skin is just one of the expectations placed on the Internet these days.' (P19)

On the other hand, there are the 'cyber-cons' (an on-line version of neo-conservatives) who still view the world from an essentially Cold War perspective. Thus, they are bound by cold-war metaphors. But, as he points out:

'Breaching a powerful firewall is in no way similar to the breaching of the Berlin Wall or the lifting of passport controls at Checkpoint Charlie...[T]he cyber-wall metaphor falsely suggests that once digital barriers are removed, new and completely different barriers won't spring up in their place' (P44-45)

Between these two extremes, which overlap and inform each other, he analyses the effects of Twitter, Facebook, mobile telephony and the growing belief that all dissidents have to do is set up a Facebook page and the revolution will miraculously occur. He points out, in some detail, just how false these beliefs are and clearly shows that authoritarian regimes are hardly likely to stand back and watch in horror, but are themselves active participants. In fact, organizing demonstrations and the like by mobile phone or Twitter can actually deliver the dissidents into the hands of the authorities.

As stated, China is not going to sit back and simply let lots of people create anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) blogs, web-sites and Facebook pages. They can mobilise their own supporters to create the same Internet facilities to actively support the regime (this is neatly confirmed in 'The Party' by Richard McGregor). In many countries, this has been a growing phenomenon with or without active government support. The number of web-sites and blogs promoting Russian nationalism, for example, provide a significant counter to any 'democratising movement'.

Morozov makes some pointed historical comparisons - in the past, it was believed that the telegraph would bring about World Peace, then it was the aeroplane, next radio (remember the BBC's motto 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation'), then television. As we can see, none of these previous technologies appear to have enhanced the opportunities for greater international understanding, instead often bringing about a 'tribalism' as groups retreat from the huge volume of information into self-reinforcing cliques - an idea also explored by Jodi Dean in her book 'Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies'. Think here of US talk radio and Fox News.

Morozov challenges the notion that all these disaffected people in authoritarian states are hungry for news from the 'outside', from the liberated West. He's right, of course. As he puts it in a chapter entitled 'Orwell's Favourite lolcat' the vast majority of people are far more interested in funny videos on YouTube and pornography.

He creates a further contrast between Orwellian and Huxleyan visions of the future - 'The Orwell-Huxley Sandwich Has Expired' (P75) and suggests that we are far closer to the Huxley end of this spectrum than the Orwellian. Personally, I'm not convinced. As he says himself, the trouble with metaphor is that it is easy to go from saying that something is 'like' something else to saying it is 'exactly like' and so, to my mind, what we have, what is developing, owes much to both Orwell and Huxley - from 'celeb TV' and 'lolcats' to ubiquitous CCTV and monitored mobile phones (or the two together, in the case of the News of the World).

This is a highly detailed examination of the Internet as it has developed over the last twenty years but, to be honest, it does get rather repetitive. The final chapter attempts to put forward some pointers and some suggestions for maintaining the openness of the Internet. But these are rather rushed and not given nearly as much detail as the exposition of the problems currently faced by the technology.

Still, it is very informative, if not particularly optimistic. Given developments since he wrote the book (the US government's continued attacks on WikiLeaks and, by extension, Twitter, the formation of Facebook groups such as the Gaza Youth Movement, where you can simply link to the page to show your (virtual) support) I think we are seeing the slow end of the 'Adam Smithian' free-range Internet and what develops to take it's place will not be so inspirational.
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