I'm less interested in whether the Internet is a force for good or bad or idiocy. It's everything all at once because it's an extension of human activity and an amplification of human nature.
Human society has always been vulnerable to hijack by the worst aspects of human nature unless concerted, determined, and sustained efforts are made in the other direction. There's no reason why cyberspace would be any different. It's important that Morozov is deflating people's utopian fantasies about the Internet. Utopianism is dangerous. It begins with brilliant intellectuals like Marx, inspires a bunch of well-meaning idealistic people, and ends with Stalin and Mao.
On the other hand, I thought Shirky's most recent writings about how the Internet empowers people to organize in new ways rang very true based on my own experience in co-founding a global bloggers' network, in working with Chinese bloggers, and in experiencing firsthand how the Internet has transformed journalism (my former profession).
So assuming one is a humanist and a realist — as opposed to a fatalist, pessimist, machiavellian, utopian, or dystopian — where do we go from here? The Internet's future — technically, culturally, politically, and content-wise — is up to each and every one of us who uses and inhabits it. We must assume and assert responsibility for that future. The aggregate actions of millions of people add up to the quality of the physical society we live in. I think we can assume the same for the Internet.
This then leads to the question of how do we build a greater sense of citizenship — or "netizenship" — amongst people worldwide so that the Internet doesn't end up as a cesspool of smut, spin, political control and manipulation. Which further leads to some interesting questions about what a more assertive global netizenry could mean for companies and geographically-based governments — and how the dynamics of power, legitimacy, consent, and profitability might potentially change.
Computer networks are control systems. They were designed as tools for monitoring and influencing human behavior, for controlling what people do and how they do it. But they’re not just control systems. The rise of the personal computer, and its attachment in the 1990s to the Internet, took the communications capability of the control system and transformed it into a medium for personal expression. As well as a tool of control, the computer network became a tool of emancipation.
The Internet serves two masters, the state and the individual. It remains an extraordinarily powerful means of projecting centralized control, through the monitoring of speech, the identification and tracking of dissidents, and the distribution of propaganda. And it remains an extraordinarily powerful means of attacking centralized control, through the transmission of prohibited speech, the instigation and coordination of protests, and the exchange of information across borders.
In the discussion between Shirky and Morozov, we hear the sound of the Internet’s two sides clashing. As Morozov points out, Western discussions of the Internet’s political effects have to date tended to emphasize its emancipative effects, because those effects are more visible than the controlling effects and because we are in general technological optimists. That doesn’t mean, however, that the emancipative effects are necessarily stronger than the controlling effects. The most likely outcome of this conflict is its persistence: We are at the beginning of a long cat-and-mouse game between those who would use the Net to exert central control and those who would use it to break that control.
To me, the most intriguing moment in the discussion came when Morozov asked, in passing, whether the Net "might be promoting a certain (hedonism-based) ideology that may actually push [people] further away from any meaningful engagement in politics?" That strikes me as a profoundly important question, and one worthy of more discussion. The most important political effect of the Net may lie in the subtle ways it reshapes our personal and social lives and attitudes. As far as opiates of the people go, the Internet is a particularly intoxicating one.
Bishop John Wilkins, founding secretary of the Royal Society and pioneer of binary coding, cryptography, and digital telecommunications, published his Mercury, or the Secret and Swift messenger, shewing how a man may with privacy and speed Communicate his thoughts to a Friend at any distance in 1641. He immediately addressed the question of whether the powers of digital cryptography and digital telecommunications should be suppressed, lest they be put to criminal use. "If it be feared that this Discourse may unhappily advantage others, in such unlawfull courses," he argued, "Tis considerable, that it does not only teach how to deceive, but consequently also how to discover Delusions."
Wilkins was concerned with the case where the good guys are within the government, and the bad guys without. His argument that digital technology advantages the good guys in detecting the bad guys, as much as it advantages the bad guys in avoiding detection, has held up well for 369 years.
Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky are addressing a different question: what happens when the bad guys are within the government, and the good guys without? Unfortunately, in this case the Wilkins doctrine may still hold true: that digital technology advantages the bad guys in detecting the good guys, as much as it advantages the good guys in avoiding detection (and in organizing against the corrupt state).
With the help of technology, one bad actor — take J. Edgar Hoover, and illegal wiretapping, for instance — can cling to power for years. Rear Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, then Secretary of the Navy, was the (apparently good) actor who funded John von Neumann, in 1945, to begin building the computer we are all still using copies of today. Strauss, it turned out, shared with J. Edgar Hoover a severe mistrust of Robert Oppenheimer, and they cooperated in installing wiretaps in Oppenheimer's home, and other unpleasant things, culminating in Oppenheimer's public downfall in 1954. On August 21, 1955, Admiral and Mrs. Strauss were returning from Geneva to New York, where an FBI liaison agent agent "facilitated their entry through Customs and extended the usual courtesies."
"Admiral STRAUSS made a number of favorable comments concerning the Director and the Bureau," the Special Agent in Charge of the New York office reported to FBI Headquarters, "and one comment was ‘Mr. HOOVER is always there when you need him.'"
He still is.
Terrific discussion — and it's dancing around and between much of what I've been thinking and writing about for the past ten years, since my own perhaps overly optimistic "Open Source Democracy."
I became convinced, since that time, that the impact of digital technology on activism was limited at best — counterproductive at worst. Potential activists blog from the safety of their bedrooms, usually just commenting about something someone else has blogged, and come to believe this is a worthy substitute for real activity.
But lately, my view has shifted back towards hope, as I come to see the true possibility of the Net is not simply to offer a new means to generate the same old revolutionary activism — but a means to generate something altogether new.
As Morozov rightly points out:
But this only means that the function of the Net may not have been to save Neda's life — however worthy a function that would have been. Instead, the function of the Net was to allow the entirety of networked society to bear witness to the atrocity. Neda did not die alone, unnoticed and undocumented.
Likewise, the function of Twitter in Iran may not have been to launch a successful challenge to a corrupt election — but rather to help those in Iran experience at least momentary solidarity with one another and the rest of the world. As easily wiped off our iPhones by the death of Michael Jackson as it may have been, it still happened. It registered in the fledgling collective consciousness.
In this sense, it is akin to the way civil rights protestors responded when the police came to cart them away: they sang. And there are so many great chronicles of these events, how at hearing an entire church or street filled with protestors begin singing a hymn, the police would momentarily freeze — unsure of what to do. The singing itself took over the space. No matter who was being individually handcuffed or worse, the group maintained itself at a higher order.
However limited the Net might be to actually organize protestors on the streets, or even to effect the change that Net protestors may be fighting for, I'm not ready to dispense with the Net as a means of confirming solidarity, and making sure something is being witnessed. Confirming that we are here, in this together, and that someone knows it. I am not alone.
Twitter, for all its faults, and the Internet, for all its insubstantiality, nonetheless serve as the strands of an existential telegraph. By resisting those who would censor history in real time, those flinging messages into the ether are demonstrating their freedom of speech — or, rather, their freedom to speak in spite of all efforts to the contrary. This mere gesture of freedom — the ability to connect to others and confirm one's experience of the world — is what social networking is all about. While this may or may not be enough right now to topple an unjust government, the opposition, in demonstrating that this freedom is now a permanent right, has already claimed victory.
I agree that the US State Department/Google alliance and world tour of freedom and openness is as preposterous as earlier efforts by the United States and World Bank to create open markets. Under the guise of promoting economic freedom, the World Bank simply created debtor nations and markets open to US corporate exploitation. Today, being open to the Net — as it is being defined by such alliances — means being open to Adsense and worse.
At the same time, however, the network itself changes the landscape. Mozorov observes: "Well, I do think that the mass protest needs a charismatic leader — i.e. a Sakharov — to truly realize its potential. My fear is that a Solzhenitsyn would not be possible in the age of Twitter."
This misses the point. It's not that the Net doesn't allow for the creation of the required charismatic leader. It's such a leader is no longer necessary. The ground rules have changed with the landscape.
The 20th Century was about movements — movements with leaders. A networked era actually has the potential to transcend movements as a means of change. We don't get behind a charismatic leader and follow him along his heroic journey (and eventual martyrdom). Instead, change happens from the bottom up — or the outside in. It happens spontaneously, less like the French Revolution, and more like a chaotic system changing state.
So the decline of the recognizable features of revolution may indicate the end of activism as we know it — but it may also indicate the end of repression as we know it.
It was such a relief when Morozov came along! There used to be a clichéd conversation in Silicon Valley that happened so often that you only needed to get a whiff to know what was about to be said. One person would say, "This thing we're doing lately — giving people free software treats in exchange for gathering data about them as if we were spy agencies and then selling personal access to the highest bidder — is starting to feel creepy." The other would say, "Yes, it feels kind of creepy to me too, but we mustn't think only of ourselves. Think of the poor, oppressed people living under lousy governments who will be saved by this stuff! We're doing it for them!"
There's more smugness than silicon in our valley.
US techies mostly come from comfortable backgrounds, and thus had the luxury of being rebellious teenagers. The only kind of path to freedom that makes intimate sense to many of us, on a gut level related to our own experience, is one in which creative rebellion outwits overbearing authority. China, Iran, etc. are perceived as parents, and dissidents are perceived as teenagers. (In some of the situations in question, like Iran, the demographics would seem to align with this perception while in others it doesn't work so well.)
It seems apparent, alas, that Facebook, Twitter, etc. have not improved American democracy, and yet we expect these tools to promote democracy elsewhere.
The basic problem is that web 2.0 tools are not supportive of democracy by design. They are tools designed to gather spy-agency-like data in a seductive way, first and foremost, but as a side effect they tend to provide software support for mob-like phenomena. There are some nice mob effects, but the intensity of the failures is more profound than the delights of the successes. A flash mob in San Francisco in which people suddenly hold a pose and disperse doesn't compensate for a flash mob in Philadelphia in which people are beaten up.
In the USA, the rise of these tools has corresponded to a truly loony period of reality disconnect and rancor. When you bring digital tools into a system in a crude way, you risk infecting elements of that system with a binary character. Either you're all in or you're all out. Each politician becomes a bit.
While American politics has often been nasty and nutty, at least there was generally a modicum of statistical noise in the system to blur the lines. Of course the Web 2.0 tools might not be primarily to blame. There are other things going on, like the decline of the cultural/ethnic majority and the rise of a competing world power, but at the very least it is clear that these tools aren't saving us from ourselves.
Governments oppress people, but so do mobs. You need to avoid both to make progress.
There no guarantee that a revolution will make things better, and a great many revolutions have made things worse. After all, the present Iranian regime is a revolutionary one, as is the one in China.
Revolutions with democratic outcomes are probably ones in which the mob dynamics during fateful formative moments were tempered to some critical degree- something which didn't happen in either the Chinese or Iranian revolutions. Mobs and dictators were made for each other, and when mobs appear, dictators will soon flourish.
We hear a lot more about Chinese dissidents oppressed by the government than about dissidents, adulterers, animal abusers, and others in China who are hunted down by online mobs. The two phenomena are connected, and should be treated as equally important threats. Unfortunately, software designs derived from those originating in Silicon Valley are supporting the mob-side of China.
Wouldn't it be nice if we in Silicon Valley had developed and promoted software that was clearly improving democracy at home? Then we could export that stuff!
Here is what I wish Hillary Clinton had said to the Chinese after they hacked into Google's computers: "Of course we need to stop hacking into each other's computers. But let's keep our eyes on the bigger picture: The world we want to live in would also happen to be the best world for China's vital interests. We want to live in a world in which a Chinese movie routinely earns billions of dollars in the USA from intellectual property rights. China needs this world because eventually cheap robotics and other technologies will put pressure on the margins China can earn from manufacturing. We want to live in a world in which both Chinese citizens and Americans can often earn their livings from their hearts and brains, instead of their hands. We want them to use the Internet to do that, and that means we have to stop using the 'Net the way we are, primarily as a way to gather data. Both the Chinese government and Google ought to change their approaches in order to bring about this world."