Internet Utopians vs. Internet Populists

In a review of Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, Evgeny Morozov makes an important distinction between cyber utopianism and internet populism.

(I’m guessing we belong to the latter, though I would sharply differ with Clay Shirky’s easy going optimism which is quite different from the hard constructive work we are attempting through the P2P Foundation; in my opinion Shirky’s mistakes ‘potential’ for ‘realisation’ and sees the transformation of one into the other as happening almost magically or automatically – MB)

Evgeny Morozov:

“Internet enthusiasts come in two flavors: utopians and populists. The rhetoric of both camps is revolutionary, but the revolutions are different.

Utopians believe that the Internet provides promising new solutions to our most intractable problems. With enough tweets, all global bugs—war, poverty, illiteracy, fascism—can be quashed.

Populists promise no such lofty goals. They see the profound social confusion sown by the Internet as a historic opportunity to snatch power from elites and their institutions and redistribute it more evenly among netizens, the ordinary citizens who have been empowered by the Internet. Like the participatory democrats of earlier eras, the populists want a more direct democracy, and they think that most social institutions, from the traditional media to political organizations, are unnecessary ballast.

Of the two camps, the populists—whose ranks include social innovators (Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Craig Newmark of Craig’s List), professors of journalism (NYU’s Jay Rosen and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis), and social-diva-cum-publisher Arianna Huffington—are in much better shape. Although the cyber-utopian project is not dead—consider the irrational exuberance over Iran’s “Twitter revolution”—the traces of evidence it relies upon don’t support a coherent or convincing theory.

The resurgent cyber-populists, in contrast, have a theory and a plan. For them, the Internet is what a hand-made grenade was to 19th-century Russian anarchists. They want to rewire completely our social relations in order to maximize the role that the individual plays in this new—to use their buzzword—“eco-system.”

Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, is a towering figure in this camp, with considerable credibility among business executives, technologists, and media critics. Having cut his teeth at several dotcoms, Shirky emerged as a leading popular theorist of Web 2.0 and used his blog as his main publishing platform. His 2008 bestseller, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization, was Web 2.0’s equivalent of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. Building on insights from institutional economics and public-choice theory, Shirky argued that the Internet obviated the need for hierarchical structures and the sluggish organizations that perpetuated them: it was now possible to do things on the cheap—and, most importantly, on your own.”