August 1, 2011Doug Hadden
Doug Hadden, VP Products
I’ve been trying to enjoy The Net Delusion – the Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evgeny Morozov. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to enjoy: littered with sparkling disdain for cyberutopia and biting turns of phrase. Morozov, (@evgenymorozov) whose tweets and magazine articles are crisp and insightful, has managed to squeeze a magazine article into a full length book. With a hodgepodge of evidence (aka confirmation bias). And no data visualization, so the proof points appear weak.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have anything important to say. Morozov’s view that technological determinism is a vapid explanation for change deserves thought. After all, who wants to believe that they are a gadget? (Not Jason Lanier for one.)
The Horseless Carriages of Technological Determinism
The Cold War figures heavily in the historical context of The Net Delusion. Morozov questions whether radio broadcasts or fax machines really had any effect on the end of the Soviet empire. He also suggests that because Twitter did not change the regime in Iran, therefore, it doesn’t work. (And so on.) This is an example of where holes in the net denialism seem to form.
- Technology speeds up communications, so the introduction of any technology does not create social change unless there are the economic or political pre-requisites to do so. The new medium alone does not create change.
- Technology has macro effects. So, the micro situation (i.e. Tunisia compared to Iran) is not easily resolved even when there is evidence that people or the government did or did not use social media in any fundamental way. The effects of social media is in a network, so it doesn’t behave like broadcast or propaganda.
- Different technology has different effects. Morozov points out that Marshall McLuhan suggested that radio led to extreme nationalism and seems to imply that other media has the same effect. Radio is a hot medium. One-way. Social media is multidirectional. Anyone can be a content provider.
- Social media is in the early days. So, the trivial can dominate the echo chamber. And, the previous medium (i.e. reality television) forms the content of the new. So, it’s a bit early to pass judgement on social media. And, we are in the “horseless carriage” days where we are looking at social media as an extension of old media (i.e. social media journalism).
- Technological determinism and the “medium is the message” are two different things. The first supposes a specific outcome (i.e. democracy) while the other suggests changes in society (i.e. the relationship between citizens and government, but not necessarily “democracy”). So, the fact that twitter did not lead to democracy in Iran does not mean that social media is not fundamentally changing something.
Morozov crafts stirring invectives at social media proponents. He’s the Captain Haddock of social media criticism. (Although not so far as to characterize cyberenthusiasts as amoeba or protozoa – explicitly. It’s just that they haven’t thought things out. So, just a slightly lower form of homo sapien.)
Get a Horse?
Are we tied to values of the past? My sense is that Morozov sees more value in journalism than social media. More value in books than e-books. Ever since Socrates, who believed that writing destroys memory, every new medium has been criticized as lacking value. Or, like rock and roll, destroying values.
It’s not unusual for someone whose livelihood is predicated on previous media to find fault with the next. We could suggest that Morozov could join the luddites and get off twitter and back to the typewriter. And off the grid. That would be a mistake. The Net Delusion opinionated noise can get in the way of more important questions:
- Despite state interventions, is technology power shifting from governments to people as an overall trend? If so, what does this mean for governments?
- Is democracy, as we define it today, a vestige of the past? Is the narrative that Russia is not a democracy rather fuzzy logic? Will the relationship between the state and citizens change in the era of social media and transnationalism?
- Are private sector actors like Google an extension of national policy? Or, do these organizations operate within unique value systems?