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