It's roughly ten years since the “dot com bubble” collapsed, taking with it more than a few panglossian assumptions about the nature of online business. Now, according to Belarusian web critic and Foreign Policy contributing editor Evegny Morozov, we are seeing a re-run of that imbalance between expectation and reality. This time round, however, it is occurring in the minds of policy-makers, not investors

Man tweeting in Tahrir Square

Image: CC-AT Flickr: Monasosh (Mona)

“How Not to Liberate the World” is an apt subheading for Morozov’s book – a critique of the growing trend in western foreign policy to put oodles of faith in the internet. The basic premise is that the western world's approach to promoting democracy among the oppressed has become mired in “the net delusion”. This, Morozov explains, is a false appreciation of the internet’s efficacy for spreading freedom, resulting in the over-promotion and over-use of technology for this purpose.

The titular net delusion starts with the assumption that the web has a strong propensity to effect positive change in authoritarian regimes – “cyber utopianism” as it is pithily coined. This leads to “internet centrism” – an over-reliance on the internet to achieve this end. Morozov lays out his argument over 12 chapters, subdivided into sections, all of which are highly readable. Although the book is largely a critique of a theory, the final chapter promotes an approach grounded in 'cyber-realism', but offers generalised suggestions, rather than definitive solutions.

The origin of the net delusion appears to be the end of the cold war, and Morozov makes a good case for the intellectual hangover of that era's global liberation paradigm polluting the mindset of modern statesmen and policy wonks alike. The Soviet Union collapsed, so it goes, when its people realised what a bad deal they were getting (via Radio Free Europe and samizdat propaganda). Information wot won it seems to have been the foregone conclusion, which now substantiates the utopian view of the web.

The influence and prevalence of this thinking is debatable, and Morozov encourages a re-assessment of our ideas on why authoritarian regimes fall. If our liberation blueprint is based on the fall of communism, and the reasons for that are misconceived, then we're in a precarious situation before the internet is even mentioned.

Our perception of authoritarian regimes is also called into question. Morozov suggests that we tend to see dictators as cartoon villains, appreciating their danger and brutality, yet simultaneously viewing them as bumbling Luddites. The resulting assumption is that Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook and Twitter will not be effectively appropriated by such regimes, who instead stick exclusively to the tried and tested tear gas and torture.

This is an important point in an era where we hail Facebook activists and Twitter revolutionaries. Are those who evangelise on these technologies—now including George W. Bush—“misunderestimating” a dictator's ability to utilise such resources as tools of oppression? Morozov makes the point that activists need to function in this section of the online world in order to be effective; however, this can pose huge risks when their authoritarian opponents can share the same level of access.

It is important to recognise that the real world power dynamic between individuals and corporations, activists and governments, does not shift as substantially as we might hope once that relationship is taken online. Consistently in my lifetime, as in Morozov's—we were both born in the 80s—popular culture has tossed up recurring examples of the archetypical lone hacker; confounding and defeating the techno-goliath (Wargames, The Net, Hackers, The Matrix, Tron, et. al.). The reality is that the established players (governments, multinationals, intelligence services) can and do achieve a significant strategic advantage online, which must be acknowledged.

The key point made is that the internet is a component, a facet, of the wider dynamic of authoritarian systems. It must therefore be viewed in a context unique to each environment in which we use it to promote freedom. Iran is not China, China is not Egypt, Syria is not the Soviet Union. To suggest that this is a new concept to all activists, NGOs and governments of all stripes, is patently false. Nonetheless, the risk that a “dot com bubble” style optimism prevails in our use of the web for liberation, as it did for prosperity, justifies a vigorous counterpoint.

The question, then, is: how deluded are we? Is the net delusion endemic in communities of activists, policy-makers and experts, or is there more to this then a cyber-utopian/cyber-realist axis? I would suggest that, as Morozov demonstrates the diversity of authoritarian applications of the web, he somewhat understates a similar diversity amongst those pushing the web as the key tool of reform.

Internet centrism and cuber-utopianism are useful as categories for some intellectual approaches, but they don't hold so well when used to categorise people. For some, the progressive power of the web is merely a sound-bite, rattled off with great conviction and little thought; for others it is the conclusion of years of analysis and critical thought.

That Creative Commons licensing is not a workable methodology for many content producers does not necessarily invalidate it altogether – it may just be waiting for its time. Likewise, the idea that the internet is central to the progressive political endeavour, and that it could significantly improve the balance of power in favour of the oppressed, could—and probably will—become more real in the next few decades. There is a risk here of condemning potentially useful concepts (and their proponents) on the basis of current utility. We should expect a more internet-centric future, although not necessarily a utopian one.

In “cyber-utopians”, one feels that Morozov has created a reductionist construct that best fits the unrealistic, intellectually lazy and generally ignorant mindset that he is opposing. Although I agree that this mindset does exist, and is prevalent in some areas, it only represents part of a wider picture.

The analysis is also somewhat selective and tends to drown the very real capabilities activists can gain from mass communication technologies. Again, the book provides a useful counterpoint in an ongoing debate, but should not be used as an alternate philosophy in itself – it's nowhere near broad enough. This might seem obvious, and I don't consider it to be the goal of the author; however, the debunking of myths should not be used to support an antithetical argument to cyber-utopianism, that the net is irrelevant and infective. We must instead use it to strengthen the debate, and in doing this, enhance our ability to see this technology through to its emancipatory potential.

Needless to say, believers in liberal democracy are not entitled to superior internet liberties. It can and does cut both ways, and as technology evolves, it will become harder to establish what the net (no pun intended) effects will be. We post links to WikiLeaks on our Facebook profiles, as Facebook, in turn, sells us to online advertisers. How do we interpret the risks and opportunities of such interactions?

If we fail to understand these risks, we will draw a distorted understanding of the political internet. Morozov's analysis, at the very least, can help guard against that. Failing to remedy unbridled optimism with effective debate could place the internet’s status as tool for liberation at the heart of an intellectual bubble, the bursting of which will hit more than just tech stocks.


Rich Millington is an amateur documentarian and a volunteer for the Open Rights Group. He has previously worked for ITV and Ofcom.   

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Comments (1)

  1. Anon:
    Feb 10, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score: 22.

    Could do better.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Richard Millington on Feb 10, 2011

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