The Books Interview: Evgeny Morozov

Your book, The Net Delusion, is a critique of cyber-utopianism. But you used to be a true believer in that creed, didn't you?
I worked for an NGO called Transitions Online. I was director of new media, so I travelled very widely in central Asia and the Caucasus and places like Moldova, looking at the impact of early new media initiatives funded by the Russian government and Russian foundations.

I began to see the hazards associated with the western model of supporting new media. People were trying to promote these things on the ground, but didn't seem to have thought about it much beyond saying: "We need to have people online and talking."

Your main criticism of cyber-utopianism seems to be that it's not empirical enough - it assumes that what works in the west will also flourish in Russia and elsewhere.
I am amazed by how little critical thinking there is, in the sense of examining technology through the lens of politics and geopolitics. But it's not just cyber-utopianism. You have the same aspirations on the part of many of the same people for the spread of western models of democracy, or aid, or many other things, regardless of the context.

A lot of these assumptions go back to the 1960s and the rise of the modernisation theory, when it was assumed that all economies could be brought to the same take-off point and would then start developing similarly, not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of political culture. And technology and the media are just part of that bigger equation, though there are definitely features that are specific to technology only.

So, this is a book as much about geopolitics as it is about the internet?
Right. The problem with many people working in technology policy is that they completely miss the political and social aspect, and all they want to talk about is the tool of the internet itself.

Do you believe the future belongs to authoritarian market states such as Russia and China?
I don't think I would go that far. What's happening is that Russia and China are realising that they need to build a strong base in the developing world, with China reaching out to Africa and Russia reaching out to Latin America, and making sure that they control these environments, either by extending a lot of credit to them or by having these countries purchase a lot of telecommunications technologies.

I wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal recently arguing that the internet is the new gas for Russia and China - especially China. They have a very interesting model where they extend loans to African countries, and also to countries such as Cambodia, and in return these countries agree to purchase telecommunications services from Chinese state-owned companies only. So it's building dependence by giving out money.

What role does the internet play inside Russia and China?
These societies are changing and the internet is playing a huge role in facilitating the changes. But we should not assume that this is a development that will bring with it more human rights, or make people care about the values of civil society. I think it's naive to assume that all that will follow just because Russia and China are changing and becoming more western.

Some of this probably comes from people in the west not thinking very deeply about their own democracies. Some of them just rely on a very abstract and glamorised version of a democratic state which never corresponds to reality, or to social processes happening in their own backyard.

Do you think that the internet has revitalised the public sphere in the west?
There is this absurd assumption that the revitalisation of the public sphere is always a good thing. I think people tend to confuse "civic" and "civil", and they believe that everything that is done by citizens is necessarily a good thing because you build a network, an association.

The Ku Klux Klan was also an association, but no one would have celebrated its contribution to civil society. The internet can empower groups whose aims are in fact antithetical to democracy.

Evgeny Morozov's "The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World" is published by Allen Lane (£14.99)