If a tree falls in the forest and everyone tweets about it, it may not be the tweets that moved it.
—Evgency Morozov, The Net Delusion, page 16
It was a match made in neo-liberal paradise: suited Blackberry wonks from Capitol Hill courting chronically underdressed iPhone geeks from Silicon Valley. Wonks have been on the watch for an inexpensive, saleable, sexy match for the compromised Bush-era freedom agenda since “democracy promotion” became a dirty word in the popular lexicon, synonymous with road side bombs and bankrupt treasuries. An alliance with hipster Internet magnates to resurrect a clean and cheap freedom agenda could not have been more timely. But this alliance has prompted a few tough questions which Evgency Morozov takes up in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.
Morozov names his chief rivals “cyber-utopians.” Cyber-utopianism is a radical optimism in technology’s ability to achieve social good. It is the co-conspirator of what others have called the Google Doctrine, a belief that the free virtual exchange of information will lead to greater freedom and enlightenment. Unlike terrorists (who stash their AK-47s in caves deep in mountains our satellites can’t penetrate) we think we know how to fight this war—the firewalls of today’s authoritarian states are the Berlin Walls of yesterday (finally, a war our technology can help us win!). Cyber-utopians see our primary task as penetrating those walls and bringing Google—and by extension, democracy—to the people.
The problem with Cold War metaphors is that thinking about cyber-walls repressing otherwise natural democratic and liberal sentiments is, well, wrong. We’ve told a heavily-edited version of the tale of the end of the Cold War consistent with this: once the Berlin Wall fell to popular demonstrations, the seeds of freedom flourished. Except, of course, if we look closely at the actual governance of many post-Soviet regimes, which are hardly bastions of democratic sentiment; Morozov’s native Belarus gave him firsthand experience with this. And for all the fuss about Twitter in Egypt months ago, Egyptian society under the strong arm of its military doesn’t appear to have emerged as a cosmopolitan democracy.
The real issue with thinking that razing authoritarian firewalls is the centrepiece of democratic promotion is that it borrows the same old neoconservative logic that delegitimized the last American regime—namely, that underneath all this ideology and oppression, everyone wants American-style freedom, and in the right conditions it will flourish. The analogies are instructive: We say democracies take “root” or “grow”—it’s in the soil, and it just needs sunshine and water.
This logic failed in Iraq. It failed in Afghanistan. But an Internet freedom strategy is cheaper and more hands-off—something eerily like dropping bombs from 40,000 feet and hoping that nudge is enough to get the right conditions cascading into stable, liberal governance. The Internet freedom agenda is endemic of a normative vacuum funded by intellectual and financial fatigue at the heart of the American democracy agenda.
Somewhere between full invasion and Facebook friends lies a new strategy for promoting democracy. But in the meantime, we’re out of ideas and money, so Internet freedom will have to do. Still, even this meagre policy is not without its detractors. There was the idea that cable television, for example, would promote social solidarity, an idea which quietly passed from memory as we began to “entertain ourselves to death.” Television is more likely to be derided as a social evil now, a consumeristic entertainment barrage that undermines the family.
The Internet’s darker side manifests itself with a destructive ease, and this has social implications. Attention-deficit, pacifying consumption can dull a population, even as well-lettered journals and citizen bloggers use the same space for civil activism and education. And authoritarian regimes are quick to capitalize: Vietnamese firewalls, for example, allow youngsters to consume plenty of porn, but not Amnesty International reports. In response, Belarusian writer Svetlana Aleksievich writes, “The point is not that we have no Havel, we do, but that they are not called for by society.” Instead, “we have an army of people who are free to connect, but all they want to connect to is potential lovers, pornography, and celebrity gossip.” Controlling people through entertainment is cheaper than terror, and doesn’t involve as much brutality.
Hugo Chavez knows it. He’s one of the most popular Tweeters in the world, boasting over 500,000 followers. The secret to his success is not to shut down his opponents, but to winsomely saturate virtual space with his stories, ideas, and myths. Autocrats are not stupid. The internet makes propaganda and surveillance possible on a scale unimaginable in an earlier century. Even enlightened America has its birthers. The overwhelming torrent of information has not made myths easier to dispel; it’s actually made them easier to cultivate. We surf and consume in our own currents of political and ideological inertia.
This is not a new conversation, but it is conspicuously absent from cyber-utopian foreign policy. Our papers are filled with the dark side of technology at home—why don’t we think those dark sides will also go abroad? A computer in an American home provides the means to addict your children to pornography, tunnel your data to cyber-criminals, and dull your acuity and concentration. But when that same computer which undermines democracy at home goes abroad, we think it is suddenly transformed into a freedom-fighting machine. Hernando deSoto, among others, has made a long point in the world of international development about this Janus-faced foreign policy: an exercise in failed lessons from home being exported abroad. Add cyber-utopianism to deSoto’s list.
So shouldn’t someone say, I don’t know, this is awfully offensive? While we’re obsessed at home with whether Google is making us stupid, we’ve flatly assumed it will make the Chinese and Iranians smarter. We’re surfing for porn, but they’re engaged in a vigorous dissident debate about liberty. And as technology conglomerates like Facebook and Google amass huge archives of digital information on people, we worry about what that will mean for freedom at home, where a judiciary and political system at least ostensibly exists to buffer their power. What about in authoritarian regimes, where access to that kind of data could make surveillance and political discipline possible on an enormous scale? Could the unintended consequence of Internet penetration into places like Iran or China actually lead to more centralization, more propaganda, and more surveillance, rather than less? Why do we assume that autocrats are bumbling technophiles? After all, it’s Hugo Chavez, not Hilary Clinton, who’s tweeting from a Blackberry.
Morozov’s clever, biting style might convince the reader that the book is actually more extreme in its positions than it is. The main lesson of The Net Delusion is deceptively simple: the Internet is a powerful force, but we’re really not sure how it relates to governance and intelligent policy making—it has both good intended and bad unintended consequences. There are (to paraphrase the much-maligned Rumsfeld) “unknown unknowns” in the world of technology and democracy. Morozov is not slamming a red light on the Internet—he’s using the above arguments for “proceeding with caution” in a very busy and unfamiliar intersection. His ultimate goal is to shine some of the western hubris off technology and turn down the music at the wonks-and-geeks party on Capitol Hill. The Internet is an extraordinary means for mobilization, but it is the organization and wise expense of resources that makes or breaks movements and revolutions. That is still, and will remain, a terribly difficult human affair.