Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion

My review of Evgeny Morozov’s important new book The Net Delusion has just come out in The Observer. Now that the paper is off the shelves, I’ve pasted a full version of the text below.

On 21 January 2010, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a speech at the delightfully named Newseum – America’s leading “interactive museum of news” – announcing “internet freedom” as a core foreign policy concern. “Information freedom,” she argued, “supports the peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress.” Evgeny Morozov has a blunt riposte to such ambitions: they smack of “excessive optimism and empty McKinsey-speak,” not to mention a “creative use of recent history”.

Morozov, a young Belarusian-born writer and researcher now based in the US, doesn’t mince his words. But The Net Delusion is considerably more than an assault on political rhetoric; for, it argues, behind many of the fine words recently spoken in praise of technology lies a combination of utopianism and ignorance that grossly misrepresents the internet’s political role and potentials. Unless we are very careful, he suggests, the democratising power of new media will in fact bring not democracy and freedom, but the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes.

Two delusions in particular concern Morozov: “cyber-utopianism”, the belief that the culture of the internet is inherently emancipatory; and “internet-centrism”, the belief that every important question about modern society and politics can be framed in terms of the internet. Put so starkly, such extreme beliefs may sound laughable, yet he sees them in action everywhere: from the misguided belief that Twitter could foment revolution in Iran in 2009 (on the eve of the elections, the country had fewer than 20,000 Twitter users) to the naive hope that instant international exposure via new media will necessarily result in a diminishing of violence in Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, Morozov argues, the west’s reckless promotion of technological tools as pro-democratic agents has provoked authoritarian regimes to crack down on online activity in some style: not just closing down or blocking websites, but using social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters, seeding their own propaganda online, and generally out-resourcing and out-smarting their beleaguered citizenry.

One of Morozov’s sharpest points is to highlight the self-cancelling asymmetry of the entire internet freedom agenda. Restrictions on internet use in China, for example, tend automatically to be treated in Washington as a government curbing the politically worthy activities of the country’s freedom-loving citizens. Meanwhile, calls to restrict internet use in America or Europe mark the efforts of responsible governments to protect the minds of their Google-addled youth from offensive content, online scammers or worse. “It’s as if we can’t ever imagine that Chinese or Russian parents, too, might have some valid concerns about how their kids spend their free time,” Morozov notes. What we need, he argues, is to become “cyber-realists” – people able to “make the internet an ally in achieving specific policy objectives”. It’s a dry mantra for a passionate book, but an admirable and important one nonetheless.

Thanks to the WikiLeaks affair, the western world may already have lurched some way towards this awareness since The Net Delusion was written. Freedom of information is no longer such a certain good in political rhetoric, and the web is losing its utopian lustre. We have seen one of Morozov’s greatest concerns – that online political acts involve no commitment or risk, and are largely mediated by western corporations – addressed, with the emergence of a decentralised global protest movement prepared to take overtly political online actions and even, in a couple of cases at least, to make their identities known and face imprisonment for their beliefs.

Morozov is on the most intriguing ground of all, however, when he steps into the debate over not only what new technology should or can do, but what “the masses” actually tend to use it for: entertainment and personal validation. Here, he joins a long and withering line of thinkers stretching back through Kierkegaard’s critique of the “irresponsible and uncommitted” nature of newspapers to Plato’s suspicion that writing itself damaged critical thought. The internet, Morozov argues, is breeding a generation not of activists but of “slacktivists”, who think that clicking on a Facebook petition counts as a political act (the 1.7 million members of the “Save the Children of Africa” group have, for example, spent several years raising the princely sum of $12,000) and who dissipate their energies on a thousand distractions. Bread and circuses, it seems, are the most effective censorship technique of all. The wise dictator doesn’t inflame his people’s curiosity by banning websites. He gives them comfort, pornography and spectacle.

In this sense, all of Morozov’s arguments boil down to the same thing: a war against complacency. The masses are mired in dross – but the echo chambers of the elite are equally pernicious, as intellectuals travel the world from conference to book signing, chatting to each other about freedom while their native countries clamp down. There’s an anguish here that emerges most clearly when Morozov talks about his native Belarus, where “no angry tweets or text messages, no matter how eloquent, have been able to rekindle the democratic spirit of the masses, who, to a large extent, have drowned in a bottomless reservoir of spin and hedonism, created by a government that has read its Huxley”.

Is this really what our brave new world amounts to? Morozov longs for the sacred light of reason to shine into the web’s dark corners. But, as his own diagnosis suggests, politics has always been a matter for the passions. And if it’s naive to think that the internet can save us, it’s naive to think that it can damn us too. Here, his avowedly realist programme runs into idealistic trouble: for if the twinned, venal natures of man and media are to blame for our ills, there’s not much we can do. This helps no one, and runs counter to his incisive anatomy of the issues at stake. For better and for worse, the world has arrived online – and duly busied itself looking at cute pictures of cats, building encyclopedias and distributing classified diplomatic cables. If there is hope, it lies exactly where Morozov himself seems most hopeless: in acknowledging and building on what it is that people actually fear, desire and believe in.

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