Yesterday, I blogged on a recent article in the New York Times that points to the extraordinary influence of Facebook and YouTube in the protests in Egypt. Is this time to celebrate the power of the Internet to bring political and social liberation?
No, says Evgeny Morozov, author of Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Ironically, this book was reviewed in last Sunday’s New York Times, the same edition that contained the article on how social media are fueling protests in Egypt. Before we get too excited about how the Internet is going to set us free, Morozov urges caution:
Here are some excerpts from the Lee Siegel’s review in the Times:
As Evgeny Morozov demonstrates in “The Net Delusion,” his brilliant and
courageous book, the Internet’s contradictions and confusions are just
becoming visible through the fading mist of Internet euphoria. Morozov
is interested in the Internet’s political ramifications. “What if the
liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of
depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?” he asks. The Net delusion
of his title is just that. Contrary to the “cyberutopians,” as he calls
them, who consider the Internet a powerful tool of political
emancipation, Morozov convincingly argues that, in freedom’s name, the
Internet more often than not constricts or even abolishes freedom.
Morozov recounts a speech given by Hillary Clinton a year ago in which
she proclaimed the power and the glory of the Internet, speaking of
“harnessing the power of connection technologies” to “put these tools in
the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance
democracy and human rights.” Clinton was perhaps not aware that, as
Morozov wryly puts it, “the most popular Internet searches on Russian
search engines are not for ‘what is democracy?’ or ‘how to protect human
rights’ but for ‘what is love?’ and ‘how to lose weight.’ ” And she
had perhaps forgotten the speech she herself made in 2005. On that
occasion, she characterized the Internet as “the biggest technological
challenge facing parents and children today,” calling it “an instrument
of enormous danger.”
Clinton’s strange double perspective, in which the Internet is
liberating in undemocratic societies yet fraught with potential harm
here, is the kind of contradiction Morozov is out to expose. He labels
it “digital Orientalism,” the belief that in repressive societies, the
Internet can be a force only for benevolent political change.
It sounds to me like The Net Delusion is a book to be read. I have purchased it and hope to start reading it soon.
No matter what side you take in the debate over the liberating potential of the Internet, a couple of things are surely true. First, it is surely true that the Internet has tremendous, untold power to shape our lives. We won’t even begin to make sense of this power for many years. Therefore and second, it is surely true that we need to be careful students of the impact of the Internet and related technologies on our lives. Simplistic theories about the goodness or badness of the Internet will simply not account for the complexity of its personal and social ramifications.