Backlash Against Internet-Centrism?

I recently reviewed Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, noting that the book is a thorough debunking of cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism, defined as such:

““While cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done. Internet-centrists like to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur. They are often completely oblivious to the highly political nature of technology, especially the Internet, and like to come up with strategies that assume that the logic of the Internet, which, in most cases, they are the only ones to perceive, will shape every environment that it penetrates rather than vice-versa.” (Loc. 214)”

Actually, both can be illustrated as such (from Cartoon Movement, a great site that you should all bookmark):

And nicely promoted by this major political figure as well:

“The Nobel peace laureate and human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spoke yesterday in a BBC lecture of the vital role played by communications technology in modern democratic uprisings and said she was not morally opposed to the use of violence in exceptional circumstances.

The Burmese opposition leader and general secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has recorded two speeches for the annual BBC Reith Lectures, which were smuggled out of Burma last week.

In the first, which will be broadcast on Radio 4 next Tuesday, Ms Suu Kyi compared the 23-year struggle to win democracy in Burma to the fast-moving revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and said that the widespread availability of internet-based technology in the Arab world had been a crucial factor in the success of those movements.”

But one wonders whether there isn’t a backlash against cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism from the very media that promoted these views until recently. For instance, take this item:

“The internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It has changed how we do business, how we do politics, and even how we change our leaders – at least some of the time.

But the ease with which we now communicate – the efficiencies we take for granted – can give us a false sense of how easy it is to follow through on some of these changes. Despite the importance of social media in fomenting revolution, and even in deposing deeply unpopular leaders, governing in the real world is not as easy as governing online.

This struck me last week when I listened to one of Egypt’s new online generation talking enthusiastically about the future. His thesis was that once people have tasted freedom, once the oppressive leader is gone, they will naturally live as free people and build a new, democratic society without much central oversight. I wish I could believe that it will all be as easy for Egyptians as running a Facebook group was.

Generally, the internet is a tool for people whose basic needs are already being met. Members of the upper middle class in any country, including Egypt, often seem to forget that for most people, the value created on the internet cannot feed, clothe or house their families.

In centuries past, revolutionaries were farmers or blacksmiths or merchants; now they are Google executives and Facebook friends. The internet joins together the elite of the world. But it also cuts people off from the past and a sense of history. The exciting things that happen online are not the same as what happened offline in countries such as Romania and Kyrgyzstan, let alone in Libya.


I don’t want to be gloomy. People in the Middle East and other emerging democracies have definitely changed from their recent experiences, and their expectations have been raised. But they need to understand the challenges they face in building a new society.

The internet may have made this transition seem too easy. In online communities, it’s fairly easy to build consensus. Membership is voluntary, and people who don’t like the rules can leave. Or they can be kicked out: there is no requirement for due process.

Moreover, many resources are infinite on the internet. People aren’t fighting over scarce housing or lucrative jobs. They are befriending one another, sharing information, and accumulating status, points, and experiences.

But in the real world, even online, things aren’t so easy.”

What the author of this column is arguing for is what Morozov also argues for: the contextualization of technology into society and social structure and institutions and the fact that social movements in the Middle East still have to contend with what I call SHiP (Structure / History / Power) and those don’t vanish overnight after a few rounds of stern Tweets. In other words, let’s not be naive.

Especially when it comes to the ubiquitous nature of the surveillance society:

“The young man in the dark jacket and gray baseball cap worn backward seems to have had a good day shopping at Best Buy in Owings Mills, judging by the size of the blue bag he’s carrying as he steps out of the store, glancing quickly to his left in the direction of the surveillance camera. You can see him online now — or anytime — and the Baltimore County Police Department hopes you’ll know something about him.

The image of the person who police believe was involved in a car break-in and credit card theft last month is part of a high-tech citizen “iWatch” program unveiled Thursday by the police. iWatch features an online tip system monitored 24 hours a day that can receive text messages, and offers crime alerts featuring video surveillance pictures.

“You can’t fully protect yourself or others unless you are informed,” Police Chief James W. Johnson said at a news conference Thursday morning at police headquarters in Towson.

The program is the latest in a series of technological steps Baltimore County police have taken, joining departments across the country and the world in finding new ways to use computers and gadgets to enforce the law. Such initiatives have won praise, but also drawn some concern about how information gathered by technology will be used.

Baltimore County has introduced digital license plate readers attached to police cars that will alert the officer inside when he’s just passed a car that might be stolen or registered to a criminal suspect. In Florida, the Miami-Dade County police have just bought a new flying surveillance drone built by a military contractor. In London, police are using facial and tattoo-matching software with surveillance video pictures.

Johnson announced Thursday that the program is accepting sign-ups for e-mailed crime alerts and online reports of anything from possible terrorist activity to abandoned cars and graffiti. He said in the past the police might get surveillance video of a criminal suspect shown on a TV newscast for a few seconds, but the new system expands the potential exposure of the material.”

But the backlash will not come as a reaction to the extensive surveillance we are subjected to whether it is in the name of crime-fighting or in for the protection of intellectual property by corporations.

I think part of a potential backlash will come as a result of Wikileaks. I would argue that Western governments have been very cyber-utopian as long as activists used their online tools away from the West, and against governments the West did not like (Iran, or now Libya) or from whom Western governments could (with much hypocrisy) dissociate themselves (Egypt, Tunisia, with a few hiccups in the case of the French governments). And so, as long as we were only talking about the so-called Arab Spring, everything was all well and good in cyber-utopia. Information circulating freely was going to take down dictatorships.

But with Wikileaks (and then Anonymous), it was a different game. Western governments (especially the US) became the target and then, it was no fun anymore. All of a sudden, there were cries of irresponsible leaks of information. Information needed to be vetted by “real” and responsible journalists before being released to the larger public. Now, the traditional media, exposed as guardians of information on behalf of the powerful social actors (public and private), had to justify their legitimacy against the free flow of information they thought was so great when it was about Iran.

So, Wikileaks ruined the party:

“In January 2008, someone uploaded to WikiLeaks a cache of documents, including hundreds of pages of internal correspondence of a major Swiss bank, Julius Baer. On closer inspection, the cache appeared to show that large amounts of money – sums ranging from $5m to $100m per person – were being, er, shielded in the Cayman Islands from tax authorities in various jurisdictions.

It was all, of course, perfectly legal: wealthy people put capital into trusts based in the Cayman Islands. This allows them lawfully to avoid paying tax on profits from investments, because legally those profits belong to the trust which, as a Cayman “resident”, itself pays no tax. But the trustees can distribute money to the trust’s beneficiaries, who may be residents of the UK and indeed, for all I know, pillars of society or even members of the Tory party.

Legal it may be, but mostly these folks don’t like knowledge of their ingenious wheezes to enter the public domain. It’s so vulgar, don’t you know. And the banks that handle their money like it even less. So Julius Baer went apeshit about the leaks. Its lawyers persuaded a judge in California to shut down and that, it thought, was that.

You can guess what happened. In no time at all, mirrors of the WikiLeaks site popped up everywhere. The First Amendment crowd in the US started taking an interest. Suddenly, the whole world knew about Julius Baer’s wealth-management services. The California judge had second thoughts, was restored and CBS News reported the decision under the headline “Free speech has a number:” – the IP address of the WikiLeaks site. And a major Swiss bank retired to lick its wounds.

What’s instructive about the Julius Baer case is how clueless the bank and its agents were about the net. They looked like blind men poking a tiger with a stick. It was amusing at the time, but it was too good to last. It was inevitable that the corporate world would wise up and in the past few weeks we’ve begun to see some of the results of that re-education process. And it ain’t pretty.”

But Morozov himself is skeptical when it comes to Wikileaks in its present form while recognizing an emerging global transparency movement:

“Why can’t WikiLeaks just continue as it is? If anything, the US embassy cables have made it clear that the success of a WikiLeaks campaign greatly depends on who gets to analyse the leaks and who gets to publicise them.

None of these two activities can currently be done in-house and WikiLeaks has to partner media outlets such as the Guardian and Der Spiegel, borrowing their journalists and essentially making them serve as both “data analysts” (who go through the leaked material to separate the important from the trivial) and “advocacy co-ordinators” (who write articles on issues that WikiLeaks finds important – even though in reality it has little editorial control over what gets written in the end).

As it grows, WikiLeaks will become even more dependent on its partners. Thanks to its easily recognisable global brand, it does have the capacity to attract more leaks – but it doesn’t have the matching capacity to make sense of them, let alone identify leaks that might be fake – and this latter type is poised to become more ubiquitous, given WikiLeaks’s growing list of enemies. Geeks don’t always make suave data analysts.

Similarly, one of the main challenges facing WikiLeaks is learning how to discriminate between different documents: data storage may be getting cheaper and leaks may be becoming more ubiquitous but the events of the past few months have shown that WikiLeaks is a more formidable actor with less data, not more. So while everyone can upload files to its site, these files won’t make a difference until someone knowledgeable (and salaried) takes a look at them – and, even better, spends a week or two chasing the characters involved.”

Then, there is this from Morozov himself:

However, for now, Wikileaks still serves its boogeyman function well enough for Western media, corporations and governments. But if leaking organizations hit too close to home, expect a swift reversal and all of a sudden, the very same Internet-centrists will be quick to decry the anarchic and anomic nature of the Internet and they will have to reach no further than some guys impersonating lesbian bloggers (or some such thing) to prove their point.

3 thoughts on “Backlash Against Internet-Centrism?

  1. Pingback: links for 2011-06-21 | Youth Vote, Technology, Politics

  2. I’ve only seen his RSA Animate talk that you’ve posted, but I think it’s a model for how NOT to present an argument. So many gaping holes,so many logical fallacies, that it is almost beyond belief that he is taken seriously. He accuses others of believing in things that they have never actually pushed forward. He makes it seem like open data and e-democracy are only,and ONLY, buzzwords used to fool people. Also, his arguments are terribly outdated – see,to take only one example, Open Networks, Closed Regimes by Shanti Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas.

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