by David M. Kinchen
"Technology is the answer, but what was the question?" -- British architect Cedric Price, ridiculing unthinking admiration of technology, quoted in "The Net Delusion"
"When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations." -- Canadian media savant Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), quoted by David Carr of the New York Times, reviewing Douglas Coupland's "Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!"
Marshall McLuhan, who titled one of his books "The Medium is the Massage," would understand the deconstruction of the social media and the Internet in Evgeny Morozov's "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" (PublicAffairs, 432 pages, bibliography, notes, index, $24.95). We're constantly being massaged like a Kobe beef cow by stories about the liberalizing effect of the Internet and social media. We rarely hear about the negative side of the new media.
"The revolution will be Twittered," exclaimed journalist Andrew Sullivan after protests erupted in Iran in June 2009. He was echoing the poem and song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," from Gil Scott-Heron's 1971 album "Pieces of a Man."
Idiosyncratic thinker and philosopher that he was, Marshall McLuhan understood that media can be used for good or ill, that's it's not inherently good or evil. A hammer can be used repair a hurricane-damaged house or it can be used to kill a person. Hitler and his propaganda experts used the new technology of radio to spew hatred that resulted in the Holocaust and the deaths of tens of millions of people in World War II.
On page 261, Morozov references McLuhan: "While Internet enthusiasts like to quote the optimistic global village reductionism of ...McLuhan ...few of them have much use for McLuhan's darker reductionism, like this gem from 1964: 'That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and the public-address system.'"
Morozov shows why we must stop thinking of the Internet and social media as inherently liberating and why ambitious and seemingly noble initiatives like the promotion of Internet freedom might have disastrous implications for the future of democracy as a whole.
Actually, thanks to 24/7 television, it's likely that the revolution will be televised and Twittered and friended on Facebook and fully documented on YouTube. Still, as Morozov demonstrates in this important book, despite all the talk about the democratizing power of the Internet, regimes in Iran and China -- and his native Belarus -- are as stable and repressive as ever. In fact, authoritarian governments are effectively using the Internet to suppress free speech, hone their surveillance techniques, disseminate cutting-edge propaganda, and pacify their populations with digital entertainment.
Could the recent Western obsession with promoting democracy by digital means backfire? Journalist and social commentator Morozov, born in the former Soviet Republic, now independent -- and very repressive -- country of Belarus, shows that by falling for the supposedly democratizing nature of the Internet, over-optimistic Western do-gooders may have missed how it also entrenches dictators, threatens dissidents, and makes it harder--not easier--to promote democracy.
Consider these facts unearthed by Morozov:
* After the June 2009 rallies in Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard posted photos of the most ardent protestors, asking pro-Ahmedinejad Iranians to help identify them; many were subsequently arrested.
* In Russia, the "Movement Against Illegal Immigration" -- a racist skinhead group -- uses Google maps to create mashup maps of the homes of ethnic minorities, urging people to find and harass them. The same thing happened with Burakumin (the Japanese equivalent of India's Untouchables) communities in Japan. After intense pressure from Japanese anti-discrimination NGOs, Google requested that the owners of the maps remove the legend that identified the Burakumin ghettos as "scum towns."
* In Lebanon, the most active user of new media is not the Western-backed government of Saad Hariri, but Hezbollah. In Egypt, the most active bloggers are affiliated with the anti-government, anti-Western group the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morozov's "The Net Delusion" should be read by cockeyed optimists and pessimists alike. It's as important today as McLuhan's books ("The Gutenberg Galaxy," "Understanding Media," "The Medium is the Massage," etc.) were in the 1950s through the 1970s. Maybe the book will encourage today's readers to read McLuhan, as well as his American disciple Neil Postman (1931-2003) author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a 1985 book about television that drew upon and expanded many of McLuhan's pessimist ideas about the medium.
About the author
Evgeny Morozov is a Belarus-born researcher and blogger who is a contributor editor and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine. He's a regular contributor to Newsweek, The Economist, The International Herald Tribune, Prospect, and other pulications. He is visiting scholar at Stanford University, and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He has previously been a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University.
His blog is www.evgenymorozov.com/blog.