An Uncomfortable Truth About The Web That Makes It A Lot Less Awesome Than It Should Be

Here in America, we often take it for granted that the Internet is a good thing. We browse Facebook, watch videos, and occasionally buy shoes. However, we must realize that the Internet can be used against us — which is precisely the point of this video.

At 2:40, the myth-busting begins. Then, at 4:40, we hear how dictators manipulate the Internet for their own purposes. And by 8:10, the speaker gets really real about how we’re using the web.

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Evgeny Morozov: We have heard a lot of stories about the impact of the Internet on protest movements. We've heard a lot about the information revolution and how it's transforming countries like China, countries like Iran, even many of the countries in the Soviet Union, and the assumption so far has been that the Internet is basically a very good thing when it comes to promoting democracy.

So many of these illusions were put together in the mid '90s by thinkers which I can only call "Cyber Utopians"; people who really believed in the transformative power of the web to change societies and to change them for the better. The most famous quote was that, "If social networking and blogging was around in the early '90s, the genocide in Rwanda would not have happened," which is now very often quoted to illustrate this very naïve view that many people had back at the time.

So many of the people who still believe in this really think that blogs are, more or less, what faxes and Xerox machines were in the late '80s, where the great dissident movements in Poland and Eastern Europe really embraced this technology. So essentially this argument is about economics and logistics. The Internet and new media have made it really cheap for people to produce content, and of course the activists and the NGOs who will inevitably use this technology in order to push for reforming change, right?

So if you really want to sum up this view, it basically says that if you have enough connectivity and enough devices, democracy is almost inevitable. And that explains why we have seen so many pushes to get China online, get Iran online, get Russia online, make sure the people have enough connectivity and make sure the people know what blogging is, make sure the people know what connectivity is and somehow, although no-one explained how exactly, these people will use these tools to ask for more democracy and collaborate together, and push for more stuff.

And one of the names which pundits have developed for this particular view is "iPod liberalism". It's this belief that people who have iPods, or any other sort of modern western technology, will also be very likely to support western values and western democracy. So the assumption here is that if you give all Chinese, Iranians, or Russians enough iPods or enough laptops or enough fax machines, they will all somehow on their own aspire to democratic change.

And of course, this would make a fascinating title for a column by Thomas Friedman 'Drop iPods Not Bombs' but this is rarely a good sign. It's a view which essentially disregards a lot of political, cultural and sociological forces which I would place on the societies and embraces a very deterministic future of the role that technology plays.

And the main confusion here is due to the fact that we actually tend to confuse the intended uses of technology with the actual uses. Just like we want to think that radio, for example, can help establish democracy in a country like the Soviet Union which is partly did. It was also used very actively during the very Rwandan genocide that we wanted to avert. We have, as I've mentioned previously, somewhat of a myth that authoritarian leaders and dictators somehow fear of the Internet. They fear technology. And again if you really look very closely at how government leaders are trying to reach out to their different denizens and Internet users, that's actually not the case.

Pretty much across the board, with an exception probably of North Korea and Burma, so again leaders are actually very actively engaging with technology, computers, and so forth. And sometimes, they do allow debate around issues which are non-political. They do allow debate around some non-political issues like climate change. All that is happening, it just isn't happening on issues like human rights, for example. So you can see there is criticism in Chinese blogs. There is actually much more criticism than non-criticism, and it's both of national and local governments. The question then is: why does the government tolerate it?

First, it's to do with information that the government needs to run the country. Most of these bureaucrats in the government in Russia, China, Iran or elsewhere, they operate in a huge information vacuum. They don't really know fully what's happening in the outer regions. So for them having people blog, and having people voluntarily provide information about what maybe wrong with some local issues, is actually quite helpful. Because it helps them to crack down on local corruption, lewd behavior, and go actually and fix some of the problems which may not be political in nature, but which may help them to survive into the next century. It just helps them achieve legitimacy.

So for them, having this space opening in cyberspace is actually very useful, because it reduces tension and it convinces some people at least that yes they are willing to consider outside views and opinions. Some of this is happening slightly differently in other countries. They may be still spinning it, but they're also trying to leverage the support of their users online in cyberspace, right?

So, for example, in Thailand there is a very interesting site called Protect the King, started by one of their members of parliament, which basically encourages users, Internet users, to go and start submitting links to websites which they may find offensive to the king. So you can basically go and nominate any of the websites that you don't like and it will be blocked in almost within 24 hours. And then you need to go through a very complex procedure to unblock it. And then because there are very severe Lèse majesté laws in Thailand, that works very well. Once they launched, it in 24 hours they've got 3,000 websites blocked. There are lot of loyalists who are actually are very happy to contribute their knowledge, tips, and what not to have those websites censored.

The same is happening in Saudi Arabia, where Internet users are encouraged to go and search YouTube for videos which may offend Saudi sensibilities, and then to nominate them for deletion. And then if that particular video accumulates a critical mass, then YouTube will have to consider deleting it because so many have complained. So there are organised campaigns actually to try to go and influence the decisions even of western companies on this issue.

How the Iranian authorities, after the protest are now slowing down, are actually looking at all the online evidence trail left on Facebook and Twitter to actually go and start cracking down on people who were active in cyberspace. So now one of their initiatives now is actually putting online the pictures of protestors in the street, so that they can actually be identified. So they're crowd sourcing this process of matching faces to names. And of course you can guess what's going to happen once they know who the protestors were.

There are a lot of dangers and fears which we do not entirely understand at this point. What we don't realize is that Twitter, despite all its virtues, it's actually a public platform. And if you do want to plan a revolution on Twitter, your actions will be visible to everyone. In the past, the States used to torture to get this kind of data. Now, all they have to do is get on Facebook. If you want to know how I, as an activist in a country like Belarus or Iran, am connected to 28,000 other activists all they have to do is go and look up my Facebook friends.

My final part here would be, again, about the Cyber Utopian assumption that somehow the younger generation, which has not been subject to brainwashing, which is all about digital media, mobile phones, Blackberries, and laptops, will somehow to prone to a revolution; will be prone to embrace democratic values. The problem here is, again, that we hear quite a lot about cyber activism but we hear very little about political cyber hedonism; where young people may not necessarily be that crazy about participating in any political action, whether it's online or offline, because of all the good things that the Internet has to offer: adult content which is pornography, instant messaging, and email still occupies proportionally much more space than politics or news.

And again, you have to keep it in perspective that most of what young people do online it evolves around them communicating to each other or downloading entertainment. And it's not at all clear how they will advance to this level of actually being political active. What if we couldn't get them on to the streets? That's something which we don't see discussed very often. We hear a lot about this distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants. What we don't hear about is the distinction between digital renegades and digital captives which I think is a much more important one because we need to know how exactly technology influences their civic engagement and their propensity to actually go and engage in protest.

We have to go back to Mouslow and actually start thinking about how this pyramid of needs can actually be applied to cyberspace. And it may as well be about that when you are bringing the Internet to China, Russia, or Iran, at the very beginning, what people would want to online is have fun; explore pornography, YouTube, or videos of funny cats, and move on to talking and sharing. Some may want to go and explore learning. Eventually they may want to campaign. Some of them will go and start downloading reports on Human Rights Watch, but most of them will still be downloading pornography.

And that's a very important perspective to keep in mind. And if you do want to understand the actual net impact and net effect of technology on society, you may have to look much broader, in fact, at the negative consequences as well.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Video from RSA Animate. The speaker is Evgeny Morozov, whose latest book is “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.” I can't say that I've read it, but I might pretend I have if I was trying to impress someone at a party.

Thumbnail image by Milad Avazbeigi (check out his Flickr), used under a Creative Commons license.


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