Many of us, myself included, would have felt an enormous sense of hope that the internet was a potential source of political good, a creator and developer of democracy, facilitator of free speech and source of empowerment for its users all around the world.
Social networks may give voices to those stifled by dictatorships. Censorship could be averted through public and anonymous postings. Even mainstream sites like Wikipedia didn’t just represent a free and convenient way of accessing information: looking further, they embodied the idea that people themselves – given the vehicle, given the time – would free knowledge and power from centralised and controlling dominant structures, from governments and ideologies, from the control of religions and party politics, and all forms of totalitarianism. We were all cyber utopians then.
But that was then, this is now. Now many have seen some of the early promise of the internet openness distorted in its practical application or evaporate completely. More particularly, Evgeny Morozov provides a sustained attack on the idea that the internet has been a source of democratizing power in his new book, ‘The Net Delusion’.
Excerpts of ‘The Net Delusion’ can be found here. You can find reviews here (Economist); here (The New Statesman) and in perhaps the most detailed and thoughtful review, here (David Parry). It is available via iTunes and Amazon now.
In my view, the notion that new internet technologies are disruptive remains sound. I believe they are changing the ways we think and behave in very tangible ways but that these changes often are more subtle and less immediate than, say, as evidenced by the overthrowing of a government. The use of filesharing, for example, has challenged a once ubiquitous and monolithic system of distributing music throughout the world. Blogs, Twitter and other social networks provide a source of alternative discussion on news items not offered by ‘old’ media. As with much of new technology, we should be cautious when thinking of its worldwide effect, since many of those would-be democracies created by the internet are yet to possess it widely, if at all.
Moreover, it is not enough that we simply disrupt but that we replace the broken structures with new, improved ones. Ones that will, in turn, be undermined and overthrown when their time has come. What Morozov tells us most saliently is that the power of internet to democratize has yet to be fully realised; it is too early to say, even for this important and insightful book, if that will forever be the case.
UPDATE: Cory Doctorow has responded to Morozov’s claims in this Guardian article. Well worth a read for a clear, succinct response to the idea that new media has not or cannot support activism. ‘How else can the oppressed have a voice?’