5.0 out of 5 stars Intellectual Recycling and Internet-Centrism, a tale of Cyber-Utopia Gone Really Wrong, November 30, 2012
Abhinav Agarwal (Bangalore, India)
Dunks a much needed, well-reasoned, and well-researched bucket of cold-water over “Internet-centrists” and “cyber-utopians” (cyber-utopianism is a “naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication”), and assembles together an excellent though somewhat depressing array of evidence to dismantle this edifice of technology-centrists.The Internet has revolutionized communications. It has certainly disintermediated and caused immense pain to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers as well as traditional media outlets and the newspaper business. But when people make a leap of logic and start assuming that the Internet has, can, should, and will engender socio-political revolutions in totalitarian, closed, dictatorial regimes, you have to start thinking that maybe there has been an ingestion of Kool Aid, gallons of it.
While the basic thrust of the book is to argue, strongly, against making technology, and especially the Internet and social media, the main focus of an argument in favor of sociological and political change in societies, the argument itself is mutli-faceted.
This book can be clubbed together with other, similar-themed books as “The Shallows”, by Nicholas Carr – that takes a fascinating look at how we learn and how the Internet short-circuits that learning process, “The Filter Bubble”, by Eli Pariser – that is closer in theme to this book as it covers how the Internet may actually hamper our ability to think critically, and “Alone Together”, by Sherry Turkle – that has a more sociological bent and how the individual becomes more alone even as he harbors the illusion of being more connected, that have called for a closer and more evidence-backed assessment of the impact of technology on both the individual and society.
This book was written before the surreptitious and never fully acknowledged Internet censorship imposed by the Government of India in 2012 on several prominent journalists and people active on the Internet – almost all, coincidentally, critical of the ruling party, using the riots in the northeastern state of Assam as a pretext to test the waters of cyber-censorship. It would be interesting to read the author’s take on the issue, from both a distant observer’s as well as academic’s perspective.
The rush to proclaim Twitter, specifically, and all of social media in general, as the newest and infallible tools of freedom started with the Iranian protests in June 2009, with the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan declaring that “The Revolution Will Be Twittered”. This despite the fact that less than 20,000 Twitter accounts were “registered in Iran (0.027 percent of the population) on the eve of the 2009 elections”, according to “[A]nalysis by Sysomos, a social media analysis company”. Worse, “[S]peaking in early 2010, Moeed Ahmad, director of new media for Al-Jazeera, stated that fact-checking by his channel during the protests could confirm only sixty active Twitter accounts in Tehran, a number that fell to six once the Iranian authorities cracked down on online communications.”
Similar pronouncements of cyber-utopianism have gushed with equal juvenile abandon, like from “Mitch Kapor, one of the founding fathers of cyber-utopianism”, who quoted Thomas Jefferson in his paean to cyberspace as something “founded on the primacy of individual liberty”. “But Kapor hasn’t read his Jefferson closely enough, for the latter was well aware of the antidemocratic spirit of many civil associations, writing that “the mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.””
Another member of this distinguished club, actually “one of the intellectual fathers of cyber-utopianism”, would be Nicholas Negroponte, who “predicted in 1995 that “[on the Internet] there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox”?” The evidence for such sweeping claims is thin. In fact, quite the opposite may have happened. One may remember Negroponte from his other, more dangerously naïve and ill-thought One-Laptop-Per-Child project, rammed down the throats of equally clueless governments and agencies looking for a quick, big-bang solution to what are fundamentally intractable and immensely complex problems.
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, propounded a “dictator’s dilemma”, when she said, on “a 2009 visit to Shanghai … that “the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes” – implying that impeding political speech would also impede commercial speech – the two were inextricably tied. Very noble. Even her boss, Barrack Obama, President of the United States, echoed these views, when, “On a 2009 visit to Shanghai” he said, “the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes…”
Except that his message changed, considerably, when delivered to a domestic audience. “[W]hen he spoke to the graduates of Hampton University in Virginia less than six months later, Obama communicated almost a completely different message, complaining about “a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank all that high on the truth meter…. With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations … information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment.”
Even when it comes to practical application of the principles of free information propounded by Western democracies like the United States, there is a thin line, if at that, that separates their actions from the actions of repressive regimes. The efficacy of moral posturing is much diluted consequently.
“Twitter has been accused of silencing online tribute to the 2008 Gaza War. Apple has been bashed for blocking Dalai Lama-related iPhone apps from its App Store for China (an application related to Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the Uighur minority, was banned as well). Google, which owns Orkut, a social network that is surprisingly popular in India, has been accused of being too zealous in removing potentially controversial content that may be interpreted as calling for religious and ethnic violence against both Hindus and Muslims. Moreover, a 2009 study found that Microsoft has been censoring what users in the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Algeria, and Jordan could find through its Bing search engine much more heavily than the governments of those countries.”
The argument in favor of cyber-regulation, “rapidly gaining traction among Western policymakers”, is predicated on the belief that “cyberspace may lead to lawlessness in the real world” unless it is regulated. But it doesn’t stop there. It may send a somewhat cyber-chill down your spine when you read that “In “Sovereignty in Cyberspace,” a 2010 article published in Air Force Law Review, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Franzese, who is with the U.S. Strategic Command, proposed that “[American] users wanting to access the Internet globally could be required to use a biometric scanner before continuing.””
On the other hand, there is the more reasonable, and indeed very rational argument when “Parental associations want to make it easier to track online pedophile activities and protect their children.” You really cannot argue with that.
“Hollywood, music studios, and publishing companies are pushing for better ways to track and delete unauthorized exchange of copyright-protected content.”
“Banks want stricter identity controls to minimize online fraud.”
Most of these arguments are reasonable ones. But here is the rub – what works for the goose works just as well for the gander (assuming I have got my phrase right). The gander here is of a decidedly darker shade.
“Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, funded in part by the Chinese government, have managed to build surveillance software that can automatically annotate and comment on what it sees, generating text files that can later be searched by humans”
Even the steps adopted by social activists to ensure anonymity, like using disposable SIM cards, or cell phones without identifiers, are also what terrorists copy – as countries that have suffered terrorism, like India, found out.
“Or consider Recognizr, the cutting-edge smartphone application developed by two Swedish software firms that allows anyone to point their mobile phone at a stranger and immediately query the Internet about what is known about this person”
But of course it could not be put to bad use by bad regimes, right? Why? Because isn’t technology “neutral”? And therefore, goes the argument, it is nobody’s business to think about the impact of technology on societies. A magic phrase like “neutrality” absolves the creators of these technologies of all responsibility of its impact.
“That we do not know how exactly knives will be used in the hands of young people in every particular situation is not a strong enough reason to allow them; knowing how they can be misused, on the other hand, even if the chance of misuse is small, provides us with enough information to craft a restricting policy.”
The spectre of shrill, wide-eyed advocates rushing to hail the omnipotent transformative power of a new technology is an old one. It has happened before. It has happened often.
With the railways, “which Karl Marx believed would dissolve India’s caste system”, with television, and with the telegraph, when “”An 1858 editorial in New Englander proclaimed: “The telegraph binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth…. It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.”” That is just so touchingly innocent. Just three decades later, the misty-eyed adulation of the telegraph had given way to some decidedly morose hand-wringing.
“In 1889, the Spectator, one of the empire’s finest publications, chided the telegraph for causing “a vast diffusion of what is called `news,’ the recording of every event, and especially of every crime, everywhere without perceptible interval of time. The constant diffusion of statements in snippets … must in the end, one would think, deteriorate the intelligence of all to whom the telegraph appeal.””
And while we are on this point, let us step back further in time, to the early years of the nineteenth century, when “newspapers, magazines, and coffee houses rapidly emerged as influential cultural institutions that gave rise to a broad and vocal public opinion.” This led to the Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, to lament that “[N]ot a single one of those who belong to the public has an essential engagement in anything,” … As far as he was concerned, all the chatter produced in coffee houses only led to the “abolition of the passionate distinction between remaining silent and speaking.” And silence for Kierkegaard was important, for “only the person who is essentially capable of remaining silent is capable of speaking essentially.””
“”What Kierkegaard envisaged as a consequence of the press’s irresponsible and uncommitted coverage is now fully realized on the World Wide Web,” writes Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley.”
Let us now return to the parade of technologies that were meant to transform societies.
“Like radio before it, television was expected to radically transform the politics of the time. In 1932 Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the late president and then governor-general of the Philippines, predicted that TV would “stir the nation to a lively interest in those who are directing its policies and in the policies themselves,” which would result in a “more intelligent, more concerted action from an electorate;”
I will not even comment on the above hope that the television would somehow result in more “intelligent” anything from the electorate.
“The first automobiles were heralded as technologies that could make cities cleaner by liberating them of horse manure.”
There’s a good amount of horse manure in that sentiment, if nothing else.
So why should the Internet be any different? Hordes of people, all eager to establish their credentials as the techno-intellectual seers of their age, rush forward with more and more fantastical claims about the technology that they can lay claim to being involved with, even if peripherally so.
Perhaps the most pernicious myths about the Internet are that repressive regimes are uniformly clueless and even powerless in the face of the onslaught of the mighty Internet. The evidence is decidedly, err, contrarian, shall we say?
“As the Chinese authorities began worrying about the growing unrest in Xinjiang in 2009, they simply turned off all Internet communications for ten months;”
“In 2009 the Nigerian government sought to enlist more than seven hundred Nigerians abroad and at home and create a so-called Anti-Bloggers Fund intended to raise a new generation of pro-government bloggers
Their compensation was cybercafé vouchers and blogging allowances.”
“Egypt is not far behind. Noticing that Facebook had been used to publicize antigovernment protests in 2008, Egyptian authoritarians decided to embrace the site as well–it was too popular to be banned. As Gamal Mubarak, the son of Hosni Mubarak and his likely successor, began giving online interviews, more than fifty Facebook groups, all of them supposedly of the grassroots variety, sprang up online to nominate him for the presidency.”
“In 2010 Iran’s hard-liners launched their own social networking site, Valayatmadaran…
Iran has been training a new generation of religious bloggers since 2006, when the Bureau for the Development of Religious Web Logs was set up at Qom, the center of religious scholarship in the country.”
“In 2009 millions of customers of the state-controlled China Mobile, who perhaps were not feeling patriotic enough on the country’s National Day, woke up to discover that the company replaced their usual ringback tone with a patriotic tune sang by the popular actor Jackie Chan and a female actress.”
So why do allegedly intelligent people continue to insist that the Internet will free, open up, and emancipate repressed, closed societies?
Two words – “intellectual recycling”
Because “fax machines” brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, so will the Internet bring down oppressive regimes. Thus goes the argument.
“”To win the cyber-war, look to the Cold War,” writes Mike McConnell, America’s former intelligence chief. “[The fight for Internet freedom] is a lot like the problem we had during the Cold War,” concurs Ted Kaufman, a Democratic senator from Delaware.”
These are “selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system.”
Complicated explanations are just that – complicated. People want one-line explanations. “Fax machines” are easier to remember than “structural and socio-economic”.
When people compare the Berlin Wall with the Internet Firewall, it is useful as a metaphor. It is not a very comparable analogy to begin with, and as the analogy gathers momentum and sticks in the public’s mind, it is easy to forget that “All metaphors come with costs, for the only way in which they can help us grasp a complex issue is by downplaying some other, seemingly less important, aspects of that issue.”
For instance, people forget that “Physical walls are cheaper to destroy than to build; their digital equivalents work the other way around.” And do not forget that DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, for instance, can be carried with ease not only by governments but also cyber-criminals.
Social media sites like Facebook, that social activists have to use simply because everyone else is also there, also make it the job of repressive regimes easier in tracking dissidents. An email address can be used to link and follow activists across such social media sites. Hacking one activist’s social media account can expose several other activists too. “In the past, the KGB resorted to torture to learn of connections between activists; today, they simply need to get on Facebook.”
Ominously enough, “In some cases, the state does not need to become directly involved at all. Tech-savvy groups of individuals loyal to a particular cause or national government will harness their networks to censor their opponents”.
“The most famous of such networks is a mysterious online organization that calls itself Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF). This pro-Israel advocacy group made headlines by compiling lists of anti-Israeli Facebook groups, infiltrating them to become their administrators, and ultimately disabling them. One of its most remarkable accomplishments was deleting nearly 110,000 members from a 118,000-strong Arabic-language group sympathetic to Hezbollah.”
The Internet, instead of serving as a tool for organizing and galvanizing opposition to repressive regimes, can actually work much like West German television broadcasts did for East Germans – it “allowed East Germans to vicariously escape life under communism at least for a couple of hours each night, making their lives more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable…. West German television exposure resulted in a net increase in regime support.” Similarly, “online entertainment–especially spiced up with pornography–can serve as a great distraction from politics.”
Even this “better integration of academics and intellectuals from authoritarian states into a global intellectual sphere” comes with a significant cost – “at the expense of severing their ties to local communities. …
Not surprisingly, most of them are better informed about what’s going on in Greenwich Village than in their own town hall.”
Between two similar but also different portraits of “diffusion of power and control under democracy, communism, and fascism”, one being George Orwell’s “1984”, and the other being Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World”, much has come true that was described in both books, though even there, “Both Huxley’s and Orwell’s books have been pigeonholed to serve a particular political purpose: one to attack the foundations of modern capitalism, the other the basis of modern authoritarianism. … To assume that all political regimes can be mapped somewhere on an Orwell-Huxley spectrum is an open invitation to simplification[.]”
The author writes that simply becoming part of a group, like an online group, that, for instance, we simply have to click “Like” to become a part of, makes us feel that we have done our bit in effecting change, without actually having to do anything. “Take a popular Facebook cause, Saving the Children of Africa. At first sight, it does look impressive, with over 1.7 million members, until you discover that they have raised about $12,000 (less than one-hundredth of a penny per person).”
Real change requires real people willing to suffer real pain – people “brave and ready to die or go to prison if the circumstances so require. …Such people may not be terrifically successful in undermining the power of the regime, but they might (one thinks of Gandhi) be setting an important moral example that could nudge the rest of their fellow citizens.”
And finally, lest we believe that “Tweets” will “dissolve all of our national, cultural, and religious differences”, be aware that “they may actually accentuate them.”
“For instance, it’s almost certain that a Russian white supremacist group that calls itself the Northern Brotherhood would have never existed in the pre-Internet era. It has managed to set up an online game in which participants–many of them leading a comfortable middle-class existence–are asked to videotape their violent attacks on migrant guest workers, share them on YouTube, and compete for cash awards.
Crime gangs in Mexico have also become big fans of the Internet. Not only do they use YouTube to disseminate violent videos and promote a climate of fear, but they are also reportedly going through social networking sites hunting for personal details of people to kidnap. It doesn’t help that the offspring of Mexico’s upper classes are all interconnected on Facebook.”
While people will continue to argue that the Internet is really an enabler of social change, going further to make the case that social media will engender true revolution, just as fax machines had caused the Berlin Wall to fall. Since the Internet continues to change, to evolve, it is certainly possible that this somewhat utopian potential of the Internet will be realized someday. However, the evidence at hand, as argued forth in this book, suggests that that day has not quite arrived, nor are there any green shoots to suggest that that premise is going to be met anytime soon. It is tempting to dismiss this book as the diatribe of a technophobe, but that is to simply shoot the messenger, while conveniently ignoring the message. While technological nihilism is certainly not being argued for, a balanced assessment of the impact of technology, and the Internet in particular, is long overdue.
To conclude with a couple of points, firstly, be aware that the message of this book is likely to be depressing for many, including people like me who somehow believed, till recently, in the omnipotence of the Internet in effecting meaningful, social change. There are no easy solutions, and indeed, even the last chapter, “The Wicked Fix”, doesn’t really provide any easy quick-fixes. It leaves us with more, open, unanswered questions, than any answers. Whether it is a drawback of the book or an simple, honest acknowledgment that the questions posed by the Internet simply do not have any obvious or easy solutions is upto the reader to infer.
The second quibble with the book is that there is some amount of repetition – when criticizing Internet-centrism, for instance, the critique appears in several places in the book, and reads repetitive.
Overall, the organization of the book is excellent, but for my money I would have preferred if some of the historical context, that appears in the latter half of the book, had actually appeared earlier in the book. But this is a matter of personal opinion to some extent.
And oh yes, how could I forget the caustic titles of chapters and sections? That alone could be well worth the price of admission! A sample:
“The Unimaginable Consequences of an Imagined Revolution”
“Nostalgia’s Lethal Metaphors”
“Hold On to Your Data Grenade, Comrade!”
“Online Discontents and Their Content Intellectuals”
“The Kremlin Likes Blogs and So Should You”
“Darning Mao’s Socks, One SMS at a Time”
“On Mobile Phones That Limit Your Mobility”
“Putting the Nyet in Networks”