The Dark Side and its False Prophets

A new book by Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues against the idea that the internet helps democratization in places like Iran. Rather, Morozov says, it has actually empowered dictators with new tools for suppressing dissension and maintaining control. (Confession: I haven’t read the book; I read The Economist’s review.)

Publication of this book was exquisitely timed just before the revolutions sweeping the Arab world proved it wrong.

"We are the web"

It’s true that authoritarian regimes like China’s, Russia’s and Iran’s have utilized the internet to bolster control, by, for example, tracking down dissidents. Such regimes do not hold power by being stupid and unresourceful. So we should hardly be surprised by Morozov’s cautionary tales. He argues that this is a continuation of past history, whose technological advancements, like radio and TV, were also expected to bolster democracy, but failed to live up to expectations.

Really? Before the TV era, in fact, only a handful of democracies existed on Earth. As TV has spread, so has democracy – like wildfire (in the long view of history). I would not be so bold as to claim direct cause and effect; but I do think it’s pretty bold to say TV has failed to promote democracy when so much democracy has been promoted by something.

And if the Iranian regime has utilized modern media in combating dissent, it wouldn’t have had much of a problem in the first place were it not for such media. A regime like that has always had plenty of means to contain opposition: propaganda, guns, thugs, torture, etc., and corruption to finance it all. That arsenal may be enhanced marginally by internet tools – but for a regime’s opponents, the effect is not marginal, it is crucial. It adds to their capabilities much more, proportionately, than it adds to regime capabilities; on balance, it’s a great equalizer between a regime and its opponents.

Egypt conclusively demonstrated this, refuting Morozov’s whole thesis. Yes, the regime attempted to use modern media in Morozovian ways as part of its anti-revolutionary efforts. But modern media was far more empowering for pro-democracy forces, being undoubtedly critical for them to organize, spread their message, attract support, mobilize masses of people, and ultimately to prevail.

Thomas Friedman’s March 1 column, though not focused entirely on this issue, highlighted some unexpected ways in which the internet (e.g., Google Earth) has propelled Arab revolutions.

But the bigger point is that the spread of democracy, and of technology, are all of a piece, all part of one big story – the empowerment of the individual. I’m not talking just of communications technology. The automobile, for example, has been a huge factor giving people more control over their lives. So has the whole range of technologies revolutionizing industrial productivity, spreading wealth and thereby also giving people more options. Against this background it’s no surprise that people would be demanding – and achieving – more empowerment in the sphere of governance and politics too. Once again we see refuted the pessimistic cynics who are always foolishly arguing that cultures cannot be changed.

Are there downsides to all this? Of course! How could there not be? The world and human affairs are very very complicated. Morozov epitomizes a long line of naysayers who focus on the downsides and thereby paint a bleak picture. Well, their analyses can sometimes actually be useful. But we should never let them distract us from the bigger picture of human progress, in which surely the downsides are outweighed by the upsides.

(Yes, this is the basic theme of my own highly wonderful book, The Case for Rational Optimism. And, in contrast to Morozov’s book, what’s said therein is thoroughly vindicated by recent Arab world events – see the chapter posted at the book’s website!)

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