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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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis