The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World

Bryan Appleyard taps in to the latest thinking by the young media guru Evgeny Morozov — and argues t

In June 2009, thousands of young Iranians took to the streets to protest against the rigged election keeping Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. Many of them were carrying smartphones. Videos of the uprising and its brutal suppression were broadcast around the world. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, blood streaming from her nose and mouth, became the nightmare image of tyranny for the internet generation. Surely, after such exposure, this fascist theocracy would crumble.

Cyber-utopians in the west prepared to celebrate the fall of Ahmadinejad and perhaps even of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Blogs, Twitter and YouTube were the tools of revolution. "This is it. The big one," said Clay Shirky, prime booster of the better world order being ushered in by the internet.

But it was all a trick of the light. Many Iranians hated the west more than they hated their president. Even the deluge of tweeting and blogging was not what it seemed. Much of it came from outside Iran and, anyway, the regime continued to unleash the goons. Too much was at stake to be distracted by western-centred wishful thinking. It was all, writes Evgeny Morozov, "a wild fantasy".

Morozov is an apostate. Now a policy wonk in Washington, he started out as a cyber-utopian. He believed in the "Google Doctrine", the idea that unlimited and uncensorable flows of information would spread democracy and undermine tyranny. For somebody born in Belarus in 1984 and who witnessed the relentless stripping away of democratic freedoms in his homeland, this was understandable. Tell the world, he hoped, and the world would react with proactive disgust. But, on examining the doctrine more closely, he lost his faith. This book is a passionate and heavily researched account of the case against the cyber-utopians.

Many have claimed credit for the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989, none more so than the information believers. In their account, radio, television and samizdat undermined the credibility and morale of the fumbling Russian gerontocracy. For Morozov, East Germany disproved this theory. Unlike most populations in the Soviet bloc, East Germans were exposed to the joys of capitalist life through West German television. Far from radicalising the people, it seemed to make them more compliant. This, Morozov glumly observes, is what is happening in Putin's Russia. Online, via Chatroulette - try it and be very depressed - and The Tits Show, the Russian people are being distracted from the onset of neo-Stalinism.

But the information myth persisted. It gained further traction because, for Francis Fukuyama and others, the fall of communism represented the history-ending triumph of liberal democratic capitalism. If this was the only way, surely we had only to explain that to the rest of the world and they would all fall into line. The partially televised slaughter in Tiananmen Square in 1989 made the point. "Let the people think for themselves and speak their minds . . . or smell your economy rot," crowed the US magazine the New Republic.

The arrival of the internet for the masses in the Nineties, and especially the appearance of interactive Web 2.0 and broadband after the dotcom crash in 2000, reinforced the myth. As it became clear, after the 11 September 2001 attacks, that history was taking slightly longer to end than expected, the cyber-utopians became frenzied. Now only technology could save the world. Similar claims had been made for newspapers, radio and television. All new information technologies generated utopian dreams, all of which proved illusory. But the internet, which seemed to be capable of circumventing all attempts at censorship, would be different.

Two seldom articulated ideological assumptions lay behind cyber-utopianism as it emerged in the Noughties. The first was that Fukuyama was right: liberal democracy was, indeed, the end of history. The second was that the internet was necessarily liberal and democratic. There was a third assumption, which was really about marketing: it was assumed that information itself was a political force.

Morozov easily disposes of all three. The third is the easiest. The internet is overwhelmingly used for entertainment, distraction and social networking. Porn and lolcats are infinitely more popular video hits than filmed evidence of Burmese atrocities or North Korean starvation. The internet spawns more giggling or aroused couch potatoes than angry activists.

The technological belief in the end of history is based on the faith that, confronted with the cornucopia of freedom's delights, people will want to be like western secular consumers. In fact, as Morozov shows, the net has given new life to both nationalism and cultish religions. Take the Turkish village of Gokce, where polygamy is still practised. Men from there used to travel to Syria to find wives; now they find it much easier in internet cafés.

As for internet democracy, its spread is being thwarted at every turn. The Chinese have shown amazing ingenuity in controlling the net and, less ingenious but equally effective, the Saudis disabled Tomaar, a web forum devoted to the discussion of philosophy, an idea that the Saudi authorities felt threatened the primacy of Islam. They did so by the crude means of "distributed denial of service" attacks. These swamp sites with so many hits that the ventures become too expensive to maintain and are destroyed. Western countries, meanwhile, are evolving their own forms of net tyranny. Facebook and Google now watch their users with KGB-like intensity. Their databases are worth billions and the more detailed they are, the more they suck us into giving away our identities, the more valuable they become.

Yet the net boosters are right to point out that the web makes activism easier. Millions become involved through a single click. Here Morozov wheels out a surprising witness, the great theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He witnessed the expansion of public debate in the early 19th century with dismay. Kierke­gaard thought it would destroy social cohesion and produce shallow involvement rather than deep thought. In the internet age, this becomes "slacktivism" - easy clicks that produce big numbers but very little commitment. Virtual resistance is not resistance until it takes to the streets and, on the whole, it doesn't.

One fallback position in response to all this is to argue that technology is neutral, and that it is how it is used that determines its value. Morozov also demolishes this, branding it in effect as fatuously quietist. For it is the form of the technology that determines how it is used. The evils of the internet are as much a product of its form as are the goods. Only by becoming "cyber-realists" can we hope to make humane and effective policy in response to this.

The Net Delusion is a polemic and should be read as such. It is an angry and often overwritten tumult of evidence. There are arguments against some of what Morozov says, but none, I think, that can justify the full-blooded cyber-utopian position. Human beings make human things and history is a contingent, not a deterministic, narrative. Technology will not free us of these truths, but, if we are lucky, it will make them more evident.

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World
Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 432pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide