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Reading Evgeny Morozov’s Net Delusion after the Wikileaks affair

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th January 2011


The first passage is excerpted from the Independent review by Pat Kane; the two following excerpts are from an in-depth review by Adam Thierer, who says that Morozov’s critiques are justified, but that he goes overboard in his conclusions.

* Book: The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate The World. By Evgeny Morozov. Allen Lane, 2010

1. Pat Kane in The Independent:

It’s strange to read this truculent but extremely well-informed critique of “cyber-utopianism” and “internet-centrism” – with its demolition of such phenomena as the Iranian “Twitter Revolution”, never mind Clinton’s vapors about digital freedom – in the aftermath of the structural shock-waves that Wikileaks has set off around the world.

Morozov builds up an almost unarguable case that the internet is easily deployable by authoritarian states to serve the time-honoured oppressors’ trinity of censorship, surveillance and propaganda. Much of his book is a useful tour d’horizon of the ways that the security regimes in Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, his homeland Belarus and many others are matching, mimicking and populating the best of Web 2.0 – all those idealised “social tools” from the coding labs of California.

Yet we’ve seen an American establishment successfully putting pressure on some of the poster-boys of the network society – be it Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and now Apple – to cut off the digital and financial supports of Wikileaks. Federal employees and students have been blocked or banned from visiting the site; prominent politicians and columnists have called for Wikileaks’ founder, Julien Assange, to be assassinated.

It’s getting a little difficult to discern one repressive cyber-regime from another these days.

One wonders whether Morozov’s dull antennae towards Wikileaks’ potential in this book (though ironically enough, he’s making up for it now, in his unstoppable stream of tweets at @evgenymorozov) comes from his own institutional conditioning. From his days as a scholarship schoolboy, Morozov has been sponsored by Soros’s Open Society institute, on whose board he now sits. This has clearly been an entree to fellowships at Stanford, Yahoo! and the New America Foundation, generating bylines at the Economist, the FT, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

And throughout The Net Delusion, Morozov shows a degree more sympathy for the kind of diligent, time-and-people-intensive democracy promotion of the diplomatic classes revealed by the Wikileaks cables, than he does for the crackers, hacker and platform-makers of digital evangelism.

Indeed, his central caution is that the unthinking Western promotion of cyber-tools as enablers and organisers of dissent under authoritarian regimes – sometimes driven by Cold-War nostalgia, sometimes by a lazy and mistaken search for “diplomatic efficiency” – can sometimes make things worse for those concerned.

Encouraging dissidents to use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or mobile texting – even if those services protect the identity of users and don’t cave under state pressure (whatever the state) – still provides a stream of social data which can reveal networks of activists, or alerts regimes to protests and concerns well in advance.

The Net Delusion is most useful as a reminder of how fleet-footed, rather than leaden and second-rate, many authoritarian regimes are in their cyberpolicies. China is a veritable powerhouse of disinformation-technology – not only building effective mobile, social networking and gaming platforms in which users trade off efficiency for surveillance, but also inducing the required netiquette on those services.

The Fifty-Cent Party, for example, is an army of blog-commenters who get paid for every dissident blog they snow with patriotic, party-approved rebuttals. And more subtly, China encourages blogging that highlights local corruption or poor services, while keeping a ceiling on more ambitious political critiques.

It’s also a delight to be reminded that, in their search for ever-better propaganda techniques, a most honoured guest of the Central Party School in 2001 was one Peter Mandelson, there to “share his insights about the re-invention of the British Labour Party”. China is inspiring the same burst of innovation in many other regimes: and Morozov usefully reminds us that loyal nationalism and patriotic service can be as much a motivation for the young socio-technical operative as the bohemian anarchisms of Julien Assange and his pals.

Which makes it imperative that the demonisation of Wikileaks stops, and a clear-sighted engagement with the shift in power that it heralds, begins. Morozov himself set out the options in a superb Financial Times editorial recently: these info-hackers, present and future, could become either a new “Transparency International” or a new “Red Brigades”.

That is, their desire to be a new “fifth estate” – true to the spirit of the American “First Amendment” which holds a free press to be the best friend of accountable democracy – can be steadily answered by a non-panicked establishment. Or if things go pear-shaped (or bloody) for the likes of Assange, an info-insurrection may be unleashed that could leave considerable swathes of our comfortable, well-functioning knowledge society in ruins.

“Internet freedom”, in short, is a valiant sword with a number of blades, existing in several dimensions simultaneously. As we go down the rabbit-hole of Wikileaks, Morozov’s humane and rational lantern will help us land without breaking our legs.”

2. Adam Thierer: Against Cyber-Utopianism

“In the opening pages of The Net Delusion, Morozov explains it is his mission is to beat back “cyber-utopianism,” at least as it relates to international affairs and diplomacy. He defines cyber-utopianism as “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.” He blames “the starry-eyed digital fervor of the 1990s” and the “former hippies… [now] ensconced in some of the more prestigious universities in the world” for giving rise to the notion that “the Internet could deliver what the 1960’s couldn’t” in terms of building a better, more peaceful world. (p. xiii) He also aims to counter what he has elsewhere referred to as “the public’s penchant for fetishizing the engineer as the ultimate savior.”

Much of the scorn he heaps on the cyber-utopians is well-deserved, although I think there are far fewer of them around than Morozov imagines. Nonetheless, there certainly is a bit too much Pollyanna-ish hyper-optimism at play in debates about the Net’s role in advancing liberation of those peoples who are being subjected to tyrannical rule across the planet.

But Morozov simply doesn’t know when to quit. His relentless and highly repetitive critique goes overboard when it veers into all-too familiar territory already plowed by other Internet pessimists and cultural critics beginning back in the 1980s with the late social critic Neil Postman. Indeed, what Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Technopoly (1992) were to early discussions about information technology and culture, Morozov’s Net Delusion is to modern debates about the Net and political change.

Like Postman, Morozov wants us to believe that increased access to entertainment and communications technologies breeds societal indifference, and that increased consumerism breeds civic lethargy. Morozov paints a portrait of world affairs in which the Internet inevitably pushes us into something akin to Idiocracy; it’s a world in which all these digital gadgets, communications devices, and entertainment options turn us all into unthinking, anti-intellectual, apolitical pawns who can be easily manipulated by the State. “Where new media and the Internet truly excel is in suppressing boredom. Previously, boredom was one of the few truly effective ways to politicize the population denied release values for channeling their discontent, but this is no longer the case.” (p. 80) He continues on: “Those of us rooting for the further spread of democracy around the globe must stop dreaming and face reality: The Internet has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that is has become considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.” (p. 81)

Morozov thinks that the “ridiculously easy group-forming” that his leading nemesis Clay Shirky described in his recent book Cognitive Surplus is, in reality, leading largely to cognitive crap, at least as it pertains to civic action and political activism. Indeed, at one point in Chapter 7 (the creatively-titled, “Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism”), Morozov speaks of the development of what we might think of as a “tragedy of the civic commons” (my term, not his).

He argues that:

- When everyone in the group performs the same mundane tasks, it’s impossible to evaluate individual contributions, and people inevitably begin slacking off… Increasing the number of participants diminishes the relative social pressure on each and often results in inferior outputs. (p 193)

It’s an interesting theory, as far as it goes, but Morozov doesn’t muster much more than a handful of anecdotes in support of it. He notes, for example, that even back in the Berlin Wall era, young East German students were more likely to know intimate facts about popular American dramas like Dallas and Dynasty than current political affairs. And, echoing the recent laments of Andrew Keen (Cult of the Amateur) and Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), Morozov worries about the “narcissism” and “attention seeking” of social networking denizens. “There’s nothing wrong with the self-promotion per se, but it seems quite unlikely that such narcissistic campaigners would be able to develop true feelings of empathy or be prepared to make sacrifices that political life, especially political life in authoritarian states, requires.” (p 187)

But this ignores many legitimate forms of social organization / protesting that have been facilitated by the Net and digital technologies. Despite what Morozov suggests, we haven’t all become lethargic, asocial, apolitical cave-dwelling Baywatch­ rerun-watching junkies. If all Netizens are just hooked on a cyber-sedative that saps their civic virtue, what are we to make of the millions of progressives who so successfully used the Net and digital technologies to organize and elect President Obama? (Believe me, I wish they wouldn’t have been so civic-minded and rushed to the polls in record numbers to elect that guy!)

Similarly, Morozov belittles some of the online communities that have formed to support various charitable or civic causes by arguing that if you divide the number of members of such online groups by the aggregate amount of money they raise, it comes out to mere pennies on the dollar per community member. But so what? Do we know if those communities or causes would have come together at all or spent more money without digital communications and networking technologies? It is certainly true that merely setting up a new cyber-cause and giving a few bucks to it isn’t the same as going on a mission to Africa to build homes and water systems, but does Morozov really want to us to believe that more of that sort of thing would happen in the absence of the Net and digital technology? Were African relief charities better off in the days when Sally Struthers lectured us on late-night TV about giving more to such causes? I find that very hard to believe.

Regardless, here’s where we can all agree: Technology is just one of many tools that can be harnessed to keep the power of the State in check or advance important civic / charitable causes. I am entirely sympathetic to Morozov’s argument that other factors and forces play an even more important role in promoting democracy and, in particular, ending tyranny. (Personally, I think we’d do more to assist repressed dissidents by sneaking them copies of Guns and Ammo or Soldier of Fortune instead of Wired, but I digress.) “The calculus of measuring quality of life demands a few more steps than simply adding all the efficiencies and subtracting all the inefficiencies,” he says, “it also requires a good understanding of what particular values are important in a particular context of human relations.” (p. 198) Who could disagree with such a statement?

Yet, in his zeal to counter those who have placed too great an emphasis on the role of information technology, Morozov himself has gone too far in the opposite extreme in The Net Delusion by suggesting that technology’s role in transforming States or politics is either mostly irrelevant or even, at times, counter-productive. I’m just not buying it.”

3. Adam Thierer: On the Voluntary Surrender of Privacy via Social Sharing Technologies

“Morozov is on somewhat stronger footing in highlighting the paradoxical danger of voluntary information exposure in an age of ubiquitous digital connectivity and communications. “While it is tempting to encourage everyone to flock to social networking sites and blogs to avoid the control of the censors, it would play into the hands of those in charge of surveillance and propaganda. The more connection between activists it can identify, the better for government,” he notes. (p. 83) “[I]n too many contexts,” he argues, “it empowers the strong and disempowers the weak.” (p. xvii) In another creatively-titled chapter, “Why the KGB Wants You to Join Facebook,” he goes so far as to argue that “membership in a [social] network is a double-edged sword: Its usefulness can easily backfire if some segment gets compromised and their relationships with other members become common knowledge. Before the advent of social media, it took a lot of effort for repressive governments to learn about the people dissidents are associated with,” but “today, they simply need to get on Facebook,” Morozov argues. (p. 156)

This is a fair point, and one that is much harder to know how to deal with. But let’s say it is true that social networking tools and other digital technologies which allow greater online personalization and socialization also potentially facilitate increased government surveillance by the State. What are we to do about that? Again, we’re right back at the specter of information / technology repression and, once again, Morozov largely dodges that discussion. (Instead of direct regulation, I would think the better answer would be to educate users about sensible use of those sites or technologies and then work to empower them with more tools to better manage their privacy and/or evade surveillance).

Moreover, Morozov once again overplays his hand here. He spends so much time arguing that digital technologies have made our lives more transparent to the State that he underplays the myriad ways it has simultaneously made government activities more visible than at any point in history. It is extraordinarily difficult for even the most repressive of States today to completely bottle up all its secrets and actions. Morozov says modern China, Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chavez are embracing new digital technologies in an attempt to better control them or learn how to use them to better spy on their citizens, and he implies that this is just another way they will dupe the citizenry and seduce them into a slumber so they will avert their eyes and ears to the truth of the repression that surrounds them. Sorry, but once again, I’m not buying it. Repressive regimes really do face a tension when they embrace modern information and communications technologies. It does force them to make certain trade-offs as they look to modernize their economies. Morozov thinks this so-called “dictator’s dilemma” hypothesis is largely bunk, but he seems to expect this process to unfold overnight once new technology moves in. In reality, these things take more time. The general progression of things in most states is toward somewhat greater transparency and openness, even if it does not magically spawn regime change overnight.

Importantly, he never really offers a credible cost-benefit analysis of the life of citizens in those regimes today relative to the past. Are we seriously supposed to believe that information-deprived Chinese peasants of the Mao era were somehow better positioned to influence positive regime change than the more empowered modern Chinese citizen? It’s a tough sell. Are their downsides associated with those new technologies (especially the potential for citizen surveillance)? Yes, of course. But let’s not use that as an excuse for marching backwards, technologically-speaking.”

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