Are we Deluded in Thinking that the Internet Transforms Power Structures?

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Let me start by saying that The Net Delusion is probably one of the most important books on internet democracy you will read this year. I realize that it is only January, so there is a great deal of writing yet to be done, but I think it is already safe to say that you should read this book. This is not to suggest that it doesn’t have its flaws, or critics (plenty of those already), it certainly has both. But this book is just as important for the content of its pages, as the conversation it is generating, and most importantly I want to argue, because the conversation it is generating helps present a clear view of the current question about the relation of the internet to democracy. Indeed I have started to think that the conversation about this book reveals as much about the book as the book itself.

In my reading Morozov has three separate but intertwined theses in The Net Delusion, and it is important to distinguish between them in order to both engage the book on its own terms and understand its limits/shortcomings. And more importantly I want to make the claim that it is only by understanding how each thesis builds on the prior that one is able to understand both the ground Morozov is trying to stake out, and why his position does or does not resonate with other readers.

First Thesis:

The first, and in my estimation the most important, and certainly most effective of theses in The Net Delusion centers not around the internet itself, but the way that we talk about the internet. This is a crucial point to understand, at least on this level, Morozov is not talking about the internet, but talking about how we talk about the internet. Our discursive production about the internet and democracy is far more important here than many of the actual practices (that comes later). Morozov’s claim here, and I think he is pretty persuasive on this point, is that **cultures, especially Western liberal democratic cultures, essentialize technology, treating it as the primary (sometimes only) ingredient necessary for success. **Large sections of the book are dedicated to examining and exposing the history of this techno-determinism. As he aptly points out the list of technologies thought to bring democracy and peace to the world is long, and history is filled with their broken promises, and even worse at times anti-democratic effects. The telegraph, the railroad, phones, fax machines, airplanes, all technologies which at their inception were surrounded by rhetoric which promised to radically alter geopolitical structures, all failed to deliver on the democratic utopia promised. (The quotes Morozov pulls from the history of the airplane are particularly humorous on this account.) Although he only mentions Fukuyama in passing, the idea that technology is about to bring an “end to history,” encapsulates this line of thinking (6).

More importantly though Morozov connects this line of thinking to Western diplomacy and a history of engaging with non-democratic countries. This argumentation is Morozov at his strongest, not when he is actually talking about the nuances and direct effects of a particular technological invention, but rather demonstrating how said particular advancement gets incorporated into public discourse and subsequently affects public policy and diplomacy. There is a kind of toolism (my word) which is especially “rooted in the history of the Cold War” (6). Vocabulary and metaphors inherited from the Cold War, according to Morozov, still influence our policy making decisions, a serious mistake: “Cold War vocabulary so profoundly affects how western policy makers conceptualize the internet” (42). This is a problem because these metaphors, inadequate to the Cold War landscape certainly don’t apply now, “all metaphors come with costs, for the only way in which they can help us grasp a complex issue is by downplaying some other, seemingly less important, aspect of that issue” (43). So the critical error here is politicians responding to rhetoric instead of history (48).

This conclusion is fairly persuasive, and Morozov pulls up example after example to bolster his case. The fact that he can so seamlessly weave comments from Ronald Reagan, Cold War era diplomatic practices, and neo-cons with “Internet Freedom” diplomacy should certainly give us pause. Indeed Obama’s state of the union address last night would be just another case of how this rhetoric and cyber-utopism plays out. Obama so easily called on Sputnik as the metaphor to drive our nation forward, while arguing that cyberspace offers us great promise, just like “outer-space.” Key in this lineage is Hilary Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft speech given at the newseum, cited throughout The Net Delusion. Her speech works only on condition that you associate Internet free speech with the idea of samizdat, when it is not at all clear that samizdat played the significant role she assigns it, or that the internet can by analogy be called the “samizdat of our time.” While it might be comforting, to think that supplying people with Xerox copiers gets you a democracy, this kind of rhetoric relies on a monocausal, or billiard ball causality, that simply doesn’t apply.

In this sense Doctorow’s critique that Morozov relies on “quotes from CNN and other news agencies who are putatively summing up some notional cyber-utopian consensus” is misplaced. It isn’t that cyber-utopism can be assigned to any one individual, again as Doctorow points out many of the thought leaders in the field are anything but utopic, but rather careful thinkers who see both sides of the issue and the complex layer of problems, but rather that cyber-utopism is something which circulates at the level of national discourse. Cyber-utopism isn’t a “straw man argument,” it isn’t something associated with a particular individual (although one can point to individuals which hold this position) but rather that it is something which circulates in the national press, in public discourse, and subsequently and most dangerously in public policy. I am all for Ashton Kutcher using Twitter to compete against CNN and punk Ted Turner, but when because of his Twitter influence he gets named to a State Department delegation, one has to admit that something strange, and not all together good is afoot.

And so while I think Cory Doctorow is right to point out flaws and missteps in The Net Delusion, I think he misses that he is not the audience, or not the primary audience. Doctorow clearly understands the nuances of internet architecture, policy, legislation, and activism, he probably doesn’t need persuading that Iran was not a Twitter revolution (although they would probably disagree about its role, neither would assign Twitter primary causality). But there are many out there who do need persuading, or need showing, that this kind of technological determinism where Western diplomats assume a particular technology automatically produces freedom is not only a fictional version of history but more importantly a bad basis for current foreign policy.

If you still need convincing that Morozov is right on this account, all you have to do is turn to the book’s two strongest examples: Iran as Twitter Revolution & Haystack. To this day I think the American public associates the events that happened in Iran as a Twitter revolution, and while the media is a large part of the reason why this perception exists, those that champion the importance of social media in spreading democracy also bear some of the responsibility, or at least Morozov wants them to. And again with Haystack the proof is in the pudding so to speak. It isn’t as Doctorow points out that the problem was that Haystack wasn’t transparent (indeed this was a problem), but rather that Haystack was so easily backed by, gained the attention of the US State department, without any sort of rigorous analysis. Certainly journalists are partly to blame here (championing Austin Heap, adding him to most influential lists etc.), and journalists that made this mistake are one of the targets of this book, but that journalists are not critical of technology like Haystack, and that the state department is so quick to jump on the promise of a particular technology for liberating people insures that mistakes get made, mistakes which are not reversible. In this regard though Morozov’s book already feels a bit dated, as journalism surrounding Tunisia was far more fair in its understanding of the role of social media, although I won’t hold my breath for the state department to give up on its cyber-utopia-techno-determinism, especially at the level of public rhetoric. (Although I do wonder how much this book would change if you swapped Iran and Haystack for Tunisia and Wikileaks.)

This is what we would call one of the warnings Morozov offers: cyber-utopism is bad government policy. It is not that those working on making the internet a more just place, the EFF, the Berkman Center, etc. are cyber-utopians, but rather that cyber-utopism still prevails as a discourse at the level of the public, journalism, and public policy, and that this type of techno-determinism-utopism has a long history we ought to try and avoid repeating; people’s lives are after all at stake here.

There is one other cautionary tale in here, that Morozov doesn’t spell out as much as I would like, but is worth noting before I move onto the second thesis in the book. The cyber-utopic-techno-determinist rhetoric which informs public policy, especially foreign policy has one more danger: a military-industrial-surviellance-cyber complex. There is a lot of money to be made here and we should expect companies against our own interest to leverage the “quick fix” of a particular technological tool to make money at our expense and engineer a social world against our own best interests. (I think this is a point that Morozov, Doctorow, and Shirky would all agree on.)

It is for this first thesis alone that the book should be read.

Thesis Two:

The second thesis, is not as strong as the first, at least in my estimation. That is while at least mostly true, I think it isn’t as nuanced as it needs to be, or as persuasive as Morozov perhaps wants it. But a good portion of the book is dedicated to demonstrating that the internet can just as easily be used by authoritarian regimes to oppress, surveil, and deprive its citizens of liberties as it can be used for social justice or advancing democratic aims.

Morozov tries to persuade his readers that this is true through a long series of examples. And it isn’t that these examples aren’t true, or shouldn’t give us reason for pause, but rather that I felt at times that Morozov was pilling on, example after example, giving his readers 20, 30, 40 (I lost count) ways in which authoritarian regimes can use these technologies for nefarious purposes, without really providing the necessary intricate analysis. In contrast to the first thesis where he demonstrates a consistent problem through a historical reading, painting a clear picture of how technological advancement is misunderstood, these sections of the book feel more like Morozov is just pointing and saying “look over there, see how easily (insert evil regime) uses this new fangled tech for dastardly deeds.” It is as if Morozov wants to convince us by the shear volume of examples, rather than connecting and weaving the examples together. Ironically, when I teach, this is actually one of the things I point out limits Shirky’s books. Morozov only gives us examples of social media technology used to bolster authoritarian regimes, never both sides of the example. Which means when he argues against someone like Shirky, Shirky can just say, “but I have all these examples where it does,” wherein each side just keeps hoisting up examples as if an example in and of itself is convincing. Sure Hugo Chavez has a Twitter account, but I’m not sure that means anything, or it certainly doesn’t mean the internet strengthens Chavez’s power, it might, but it might also mean that Chavez is now using communication means beyond his control, and has less power. As Doctorow rightly points out in his critique the footing is now a lot more equal, sure Chavez has more followers, but dissidents can also use Twitter. It is a lot more complicated than pointing out examples and say, look here.

Not surprisingly some of Morozov’s strangest analysis happens here. In the list of things to worry about Morozov cites the dangers of police audio surveillance, or the ubiquitous presence of cameras, but why are those examples here? All technology is not the internet, and while the growth in ubiquitous surveillance has occurred at the same time as the rise of the digital network those things are by no means coterminous. If anything the internet helps to level the playing field in that regard by giving surveillance powers to citizens, or at least helping to make citizens aware of the surveillance powers of the government.

This is unfortunate, for Morozov has some fairly strong examples worth pursuing here, and by focusing on those we can get a more complicated picture of activism in the age of the internet. The strongest point raised here is that those who champion the internet as a tool for democracy or social justice often assume that allowing people to connect with each other more frictionlessly will yield a more just society, when indeed there is little evidence to suggest this is the case. Again as Morozov points out civic engagement does not necessarily yield social justice or democracy; groups can organize, i.e. civic engagement, for unjust/undemocratic purposes as well. Groups bent on oppressing others can just as easily use Facebook to organize, mobs get more powerful in the networked age, that doesn’t mean they get more just. The examples here are many and when Morozov cites them and explains them they are particularly powerful. Want to know what justice looks like on the internet? Sure you can point to a group of school kids organizing a walk out, but Morozov can point to 4chan justice. How do you encourage one without encouraging both? (And again in fairness Shirky does the same thing just in reverse, notice all of his examples in Here Comes Everybody are positive, except the one of anorexia, which he manages to place a positive spin on.)

The historical and theoretical literature on this subject is pretty vast, and I think worth considering more in depth than Morozov does. To be sure he cites one of the better books on the subject, Amory’s The Dubious Link, which demonstrates civic engagement doesn’t yield social justice, that other factors are more important. But I just wanted more here, more than the argument by example, which is so easily refuted by argument by example from the other side.

Third Thesis:

This is where I get off the bus, or at least start to significantly disagree with Morozov. Morozov in my estimation seems to be arguing that there is nothing particularly new about the internet. That is that we can understand this moment as homogenous to the prior, the net is just the next step in technological change (I don’t think he would call it evolution), and nothing about this technology fundamentally re-orders power or the way that power operates, or if it does it only enhances these power dynamics (often for the worse not the better) not revolutionizes them. To be sure this is a subtle thesis throughout the book, not one as directly argued as the other two. But to see how this operates I point, not to the book itself but to a column Morozov did for The Browser outlining what he thought were the five most important books on the philosophy and history of technology. Now I am not going to break down the list, you can go read it yourself, but it is pretty clear to me that given the books he selects, and his take on them he is 1. firmly against techno-determinism. 2. Against any philosophical or historical take which argues technology is revolutionary, instead treating technology as transformative but transformative with a continuous narrative, influenced by other stronger forces such as politics and economics.

The last sentence in that article is particularly telling, “It boils down essentially to whether the internet is so unique as a technology that it even defies the conventions of philosophy of technology as a field, and whether it requires its own set of principles and assumptions.” It seems to me that while Morozov wants on the one hand to argue that the internet is a big subject, but also wants to argue also that it is not a radically new technology. Indeed the other half of cyber-utopism that The Net Delusion spends a good deal of time discussing is internet-centricism, a focus on the internet almost to the exclusion of understanding other forces. In fact this was Morozov’s response to the Doctorow piece when he tweeted, “Ironically, Cory’s review has convinced me that Internet-centrism – not cyber-uoptianism – is the real problem with Internet discourse.”

It seems to me that Morozov has a particular, not very optimistic, view of human nature, which leads him to the conclusion that any technology, while perhaps altering human relations, cannot be finally determinate, other [largely negative] forces will always over determine the technology. A particularly telling joke/aside in this regard is when Morozov suggests that cyber-utopians and internet policy makers clearly haven’t read their Hobbes (xiv). While surely policy makers could benefit from reading political philosophy I am not sure I would start them out with, or even encourage Hobbes. Morozov’s bend towards the negative ends up being on display throughout the book where he will quickly point out that a particular technology can be used for ill, but only reluctantly, often with caveats, concede that these technologies can also be used to promote social justice. At one particularly telling point he says, “Will some of that influence be positive and conducive to democratization? Perhaps, but there will also surely be those who will try to stir things up or promote outdated norms and practices.” (252, emphasis added) Why perhaps and surely? Why is the good only a perhaps and the ill a surety?

And this is where I think the important debate is: Is the internet as a technology subject to the same analysis as other technological developments? Can it largely be understood within the history and philosophy of technology, itself being shaped by the milieus into which it enters, determined by other forces, economics, politics, or human nature? or Is the internet a heterogenous technology? Is the internet so transformative a technology as to render prior means of understanding the philosophy of technology, if not useless at least making them outmoded? Does the internet act as a force transforming economics, politics, and human nature?

To be sure I don’t think this debate is by any means settled, I have my own opinion (here is a hint this project is called profound heterogeneity), and I think we should be clear about this debate and what is at stake. I think one of the weaknesses of The Net Delusion is that it isn’t as clear about these stakes as it could be, arguing by example (see above thesis two) to make this point, which unfortunately can lend the book to be read as an “old guard–cynical” approach surrendering to the “status-quo” before the battle is even over (as Tufekci argues). I am not sure if this is Morozov’s purpose, but the sense that one gets from the book that we need more hierarchy, more policy wonks, more of the old-guard, old structures, certainly lends to the reading that it is (at times I actually wondered if I was reading Richard Clark’s Cyberwar). And maybe we do? I wouldn’t want to make that argument, but there are certainly reasoned arguments to be made in this regard, and at its best The Net Delusion hints towards what those would be, and where those who want to make that case ought to be looking.

One last closing thought I think this gives us insight into the Shirky (and now Doctorow) versus Morozov debate. Shirky and Doctorow argue from the perspective that the digital network is radically transformative, not understandable according to prior models, and find examples to bolster their claims. While Morozov seems to argue its not and finds examples to prove his point. Unfortunately these debates often end up being about examples rather than digging further in to the details here of does sociality, publicness, and governance change. Sure, I can say look isn’t it cool that this guy got his cellphone back when the police couldn’t help him, and you can say yeah but look people use the net to make LOLCats how does that help, or more seriously,  Doctorow can say, but the internet makes it easier to organize I don’t have to run around posting flyers, and Morozov can respond yes but now the government has a record of every flyer you ever posted, but neither approach gets us as far as we need to go.

And despite moments where The Net Delusion channels the base form of the argument, “you are going to amuse yourself to death online,” for the most part it advances the argument that we need to be more careful about how we understand the internet to affect politics.