I know this post would be about as relevant as some 15th Century abbot solemnly warning his monks in the scriptorium not to quill any heretical thoughts on their parchments, while Herr Gutenberg’s presses broadcast the news. But…
Most people think the Internet advances the cause of freedom more effectively than ballistic missiles and Hellfire-equipped drones. Unfortunately, this kind of technological romanticism relies on false historical analogies and sloppy thinking. Modern communications technologies are already being deployed as new forms of repression.
Romanticism baggage, in short, severely limits the imagination of do-gooders in the West. They assume that the Internet is too big to control without significant economic losses. But governments don’t need to control every text message or email. There’s a special irony when Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggests —as he did in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last November— that China’s government will find it impossible to censor “a billion phones that are trying to express themselves.” Schmidt is rich because his company sells precisely targeted ads against hundreds of millions of search requests per day. If Google can zero in like that, so can China’s censors.
Can the Internet empower dissidents and pro-democracy activists? Yes. But it can also strengthen existing dictatorships and facilitate the control of their populations. Internet’s utopian plan to liberate the world one tweet at a time could also turn this innovation into a tool for the world’s subjugation. All walls, being the creation of engineers, can be breached with the right tools. But modern authoritarian governments control the web in ways more sophisticated than guard towers.
Bread and circuses, it seems, are the most effective censorship technique of all. The wise dictator doesn’t inflame his people’s curiosity by banning websites. He gives them comfort, pornography and spectacle.
The debate is over not only what new technology should or can do, but what “the masses” actually tend to use it for: entertainment and personal validation. Here, I join a long and withering line of thinkers stretching back through Kierkegaard’s critique of the “irresponsible and uncommitted” nature of newspapers to Plato’s suspicion that writing itself damaged critical thought. The internet is breeding a generation not of activists but of “slacktivists”, who think that clicking on a Facebook petition counts as a political act (the 1.7 million members of the “Save the Children of Africa” group have, for example, spent several years raising the princely sum of $12,000) and who dissipate their energies on a thousand distractions.
The wise dictator also gives them libel as a mean of control of dissidents, lynching as a dark side to human nature which often manifests itself on the Internet. The unofficial media are now a methane-filled swamp, infested by rabid vampires and bloodthirsty cannibals. Now the walls of the city are broken, and everyone can trade in an information market place that has absolutely no rules. And as the suicides of cyber-bullied teenagers confirm, almost anything can be said in the vicious and depraved Gomorrah of the internet, and to try to fight online lynching is rather like having a human rights’ activist outside the Gestapo’s Berlin HQ on Niederkirchneer Strasse in 1944.
Furious torch-lit marches on fresh and instantly forgettable issues will each day go stomping down the dark streets of the internet. The fascism of tomorrow will not be sited in Government Buildings, but in the brickless chancelleries of iCloud. Beauty and conformity will be the watchwords of this Brave New Reich of pitiless ephemera, where what is beautiful one day might well be ugliness the next, and what was dogma at sunrise will be heresy by dusk.
What has gone wrong? It is tempting to say that the net reveals what people are “really” like —which in many cases turns out to be stupid, prejudiced and nasty. But that would be a mistake, because in most other social situations, people do not behave in the profoundly unattractive fashion that has become so common on “social media”.
Is this really what our brave new world amounts to? I long for the sacred light of reason to shine into the web’s dark corners. If it’s naive to think that the internet can save us, it’d be also naive to think that it can damn us too. For better and for worse, the world has arrived online —and duly busied itself looking at cute pictures of cats, building encyclopedias and distributing classified diplomatic cables. If there is hope, it lies exactly where it seems most hopeless: in acknowledging and building on what it is that people actually fear, desire and believe in.
Cyber-realism – Dugutigui on some ideas by Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion”