The Net Delusion – Evgeny Morozov

If you count yourself among the small, serene faction of dreamers, data-poets, tech-millionaires and -billionaires and policymakers who still think the Web is an unconditionally benign phenomenon, a place where humanity goes to connect and tyranny goes to die and nothing more, then Evgeny Morozov has got some news for you: it ain’t. If, though, you are all too aware of how rancid the internet can be, how unsafe, how illiberal, how anarchic and yet how hegemonized, how much it now resembles Orwell’s “family with the wrong members in control,” if you think it’s been looking recently like a sort of Eden for advertisers, a paradise for pornographers, an interesting new censorship project for dictators, and, above all, a psychic map of the human race over which the most opportunistic and unpleasant agencies are squinting ominously – in short, if you belong with the rest of us, those of us who don’t suffer many or any Net delusions, those of us who know the Internet is sometimes very good for us and sometimes very bad for us, then Evgeny Morozov emphatically does not have news for you. Indeed, flicking through The Net Delusion will do little more than send the words “well, I knew that” circling like a great big buffering symbol through your mind.

You may also, as you plod away through these pages, find yourself wondering if Morozov might have profited from a better editor; someone who could have warned him against clumsily formulated rhetorical questions such as this: “Why should ordinary Cubans take any risks to listen to highly ideological and somewhat boring news about politics if they can follow the travails of Tony Soprano?” (To which I would have to respond with another question – why not both?) A discerning editor might also have dissuaded him from including the following dodgy joke: “Today’s battle is not between David and Goliath; it’s between David and David Letterman” (And I would have to follow up with yet another question – is it really?) Such an editor might at least have reminded his client that Iran is not, in point of fact, a city: “This is why Washington beats any other city in the world, including Iran and Beijing…”

Allow me a few more ungenerous pokes at The Net Delusion before I start taking it seriously, or semi-seriously. In his book The Four-Dimensional Human, Laurence Scott recalls a dictum he once published in the form of a Facebook status update: “How long before newsreaders realise that we all know that the social networking website Twitter is a social networking website?” It isn’t just the newsreaders who are guilty; Morozov does a fair bit of this, too – although, to be fair, he renders it “the popular microblogging site Twitter.” Elsewhere we get “social networking sites like Facebook” and “search engines like Google,” and then again, twenty pages later, in case we forgot, “social networking sites like Facebook.” And later we are helpfully told that Wired Italy is “the Italian edition of the popular technology magazine.”

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None of this matters, really, but it does raise some questions regarding the intended beneficiaries of Morozov’s wisdom. His bland little prefixes are, after all, pretty widespread in journalism these days, and are useful right up until they stop being useful (if this guy were writing about the sun he’d probably call it “the popular floating orb” or “the respected yellow ball” or “the respected founder of the popular period known as daytime”). But they do force one to ask: who is this book for? Surely not for the average internet user, who hardly needs to be told the Web might not actually be a borderless sanctuary of freedom, who certainly doesn’t need to be told what Twitter is, and who can probably guess that Wired Italy has something to do with Italy and something to do with Wired. If not for you or me, then it must really be for the others, the ones I’ve mentioned, those who profit in some way or other from the belief, or professed belief, that no dark clouds or killer drones stalk the Internet’s soft blue sky.

Though there might not be many of these people, the ones that do exist tend to be powerful. Also, they tend to be silly. Morozov insists on both points from the beginning. His book opens with an account of Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution in 2009 – an event, or non-event, during which social networking was promoted by journalists from frivolous distraction outlet to ultimate tool of dissent. That many of the protestors used Smartphones and the Internet to organize themselves was taken as clear evidence of a new kind of popular uprising. Yochi Dreazan of the Wall Street Journal is quoted as saying “this [revolution] would not happen without Twitter.” But did the revolution really happen at all? Dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests later, there stood Ahmadinejad, still very much in power, still smiling reptilianly from his podium in front of the national emblem – not looking too bothered at all. To Morozov’s disgust, none of these Dreazan types, who had so unreflectively declared Twitter a new hero of the oppressed, seemed to change their views when the failure of the Tehrani protests became evident. He disapprovingly quotes someone called Tim Rutten, who said “authoritarians like those in Iran will have a difficult time maintaining control in the face of technology’s chaotic democracy”. He disapprovingly quotes another person called John Gapper, who decided that Twitter was “the tinderbox that fanned the spark of revolt”. He pulls up from the archives similarly Panglossian statements from many other bloggers and journalists whom you may or may not have heard of. Indeed, the first dozen pages of The Net Delusion is mostly just a slew of indignant quoting.

Whence came this spasm of uncynical optimism? Morozov has an idea. “The irrational exuberance that marked the Western interpretation of what was happening in Iran,” he writes, “suggests that the green-clad youngsters tweeting in the name of freedom nicely fit into some preexisting mental schema that left little room for nuanced interpretation, let alone skepticism about the actual role the Internet played at the time.” I will leave aside my deep, inexplicable hatred for the word ‘nuanced’ and say that this is a convincing analysis, and it leads the author into his most interesting line of argument – that the West, as much as Russia, was and is haunted by the USSR, and in particular by the events of 1989. Whatever this “preexisting mental schema” might look like exactly, it has certainly been shaped by the mythology of the Cold War, with its epic ideological struggles and its constant threat of a nuclear apocalypse, its ambiguous heroes (Truman, JFK, Gorbachev) and its huge villains (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot), its glamorous, very dark lexicon: megadeath, iron curtain, mutually assured destruction, evil empire, and so on.

The Gappers and Ruttens of this world (“cyber-utopians”, as they are derisively called) seem to be Morozov’s chief targets, and to answer the question I posed earlier, might in fact be the sorts of folks The Net Delusion is intended for. Part of this cyber-utopianism comes out of a dismal misreading of history, coupled with a somewhat saccharine view of Western liberal values – i.e., that democracy, exemplified by the prosperous, joyful, and radiantly free United States, was so persuasive and even quasi-divine in its political and economic success that mere exposure to its ways (through radio stations and pamphlets, books and songs collected under the evocative Russian word samizdat, meaning “self-published”) was enough to bring whole populations out of their Brutalist kennels and Stalinist towers and into the soul-cleansing light of liberty, equality, regular elections, humane trams, Nordic furniture, fresh vegetables, and all the attendant wonders of the free market.

Regarding ‘89, when these religious-style convulsions were supposed to have happened, Morozov is very good on the tournament of ideas and anxieties that surrounded the noisy power-shifts in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and other great capitals, and he is even better on the Soviet Union, which he can remember from his childhood, and which as a Belarussian he can, so to speak, revisit (since Belarus, the last “outpost of tyranny” in Europe, is still ruled by that weird Soviet-style tyrant Alexander Lukashenko, surely the only living world leader who has confessed to admiring both Stalin and Hitler). Aware of how hideously these revolutions could have turned out, how aggressive and vengeful and decidedly non-ideological so much of their participants were, how close some countries came to all-out civil war (Romania and Russia, for instance), he does not consider the Year of Revolutions to be a particularly elegant model for future policymakers. (Interestingly, 1989 was also the year the first commercial ISPs emerged, marking the beginning of the Web as we know it (it was also the year of the Iranian fatwah against Salman Rushdie, thus bringing before Western eyes a whole other kind of global network, which would itself be spoken of, a little later, in decidedly Cold War terms)). “It’s far easier,” he concludes, “to explain recent history by assuming that communism dropped dead the moment Soviet citizens understood that there were no queues in Western supermarkets than to search for truth in some lengthy and obscure reports on the USSR’s trade balance.”

America emerged victorious from the Cold War, but it did not “defeat” communism in any meaningful sense. American news reports and English books and West German radio stations had a smaller role to play than most triumphant Westerners like to acknowledge. Let’s take the twentieth century’s most powerful communist state. Several complex and related events led to the death of the Soviet Union, among them the election of Gorbachev in 1985, his introduction of perestroika and glasnost into the Soviet political imagination (if that is not a contradiction in terms), the rise of Yeltsin, successive economic catastrophes, the Red Army’s moral and military failure in Afghanistan, and the emergence of European and Asian nationalisms on the peripheries: all of these phenomena contributing at different times and in different ways to the demise of a superpower, reaching a kind of photogenic apotheosis in the sight of the Berlin Wall being climbed upon and torn apart and sledgehammered on November 9, 1989. Though the USSR went limping on for another two years afterward, it was clear to everyone (except for the Moscow hard-liners who orchestrated a ludicrous failed putsch in August 1991) that it was all over. Glowing in the corner of every apartment throughout this decline and fall was the television, whose state-controlled programmes had a greater influence on the average Soviet citizen than any foreign journal or radio station, or so Arkady Ostrovsky argues in his fine book The Invention of Russia. The immense power that state television holds over the average Russian mind is known to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who seized control of Ostankino, Moscow’s TV tower, almost immediately after taking office.

Nowadays, Russian television is as weirdly energetic as its American counterpart, a high-def circus of dancing economists, shouty reactionaries, prophets, preachers, psychics. The Russian Internet is similarly lurid. Anti-Putin bloggers abound. But the Kremlin only tolerates what it wants to tolerate, and controls what it wants to control, which tends of course to be the popular stuff. (Little-known bloggers have perfect freedom, so long as their words are falling into the void). The collective victim of these manipulations is a confused and distracted populace, afraid of returning to an earlier era of extreme violence, all too willing to embrace Putin’s stable authoritarianism as the best available option. This fits in neatly with Morozov’s observation that censorship is unnecessary when the marketplace of ideas is too crowded, too boisterous, for anything to be bought or sold in the first place. The Internet, to paraphrase a famous movie-line, may not create dictators, but it makes dictators more creative.

The Net Delusion is at its best when focused on these matters, although Morozov comes dangerously close to letting the fragility of the technology define its value. That many websites are censored in China and many Russian bloggers work for the Kremlin is hardly news; that this constitutes an argument against the Internet is not serious. One might as well say that because Nazis burned books they proved the worthlessness of books. The technology exists; it is not inviolable. It needs to be protected and thought about critically. It needs to be put to good use. Cyber-utopians, wherever and whoever they are, are morons. The very fact that I find myself uttering these truisms shows how fundamental Morozov’s concerns are, and yet how banal, how little in the end they will contribute to this most vital of modern conversations.

 

 

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