The Internet will not save us

Democratic and populist movements rely on the ability to communicate.  When the Thirteen Colonies began to resist the authority of the British crown, the first thing they did was to set up Committees of Correspondence.  When General Jarulzelski proclaimed martial law and suppressed the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, the first thing he did was to shut down the telephone system.

Clay Shirky in his presentation to TED said the Internet has empowered people in an unprecedented way because of the multiple ways it enables people to communicate.  What he said is true and important, but, as he himself might agree, it is not the whole truth.

He gives three examples of the Internet’s potential: (1) how Americans picked up from Nigerians an idea of how to use electronic media to monitor elections and prevent voter suppression, (2) how Chinese used electronic media to disseminate news of an earthquake and call corrupt officials to account and (3) how President Obama’s supporters engaged in dialogue with him through the Organizing for America web site.

All good things.  But the Internet also facilitates international scam artists operating out of Nigeria and other countries.  It does not threaten the power of the rulers of China and other authoritarian countries. In fact, they turn the social media to their own purposes.  And Organizing for America has not made President Obama accountable for his original campaign promises.  Rather he tries to use it as a vehicle for his own purposes, such as his call to members to support a federal pay freeze.  I don’t think many Organizing for America members signed up with the idea of preventing pay raises for letter carriers, VA hospital nurses and FBI agents.

The Internet enables people to communicate in ways they couldn’t before, but it also enables government to monitor citizens in ways they couldn’t before.  Every e-mail communication is subject to being monitored.  Every Google search is on record.  The two-way television set in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a technical possibility; Winston Smith could send information down the Memory Hole with the click of a mouse.

During the 2009 protests in Iran, government supporters took pictures of protesters on cell phones, then posted the pictures on public web sites and used “crowd sourcing” to identify them.  As Evgeny Mazarov says, secret police no longer have to torture people to find out their networks of friends; all they have to do is network on Facebook.  The U.S. Department of Justice has subpoenaed Twitter accounts of people connected with Julian Assange – another example of how a means of communication can be a means of surveillance.

The anonymity of the Internet does not just protect dissidents and whistleblowers.  It allows secret government agencies to circulate disinformation and inflammatory propaganda, without individuals have any way to distinguish the genuine from the bogus.

Then there is the distracting nature of the Internet.  Few people accustomed to communicating by Twitter would sit down to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

I say all this as a blogger who uses the Internet a lot, and feels distrait when my Internet connection isn’t working properly.  There are Amish who reject electronic communication as a matter of principle.  I would hate to do without electronic communication.  But it isn’t magic.

Click on Cyber-Con for an article in the London Review of Books on how use of social media backfired on dissidents in Iran and other countries.

Click on “The Connection Has Been Reset” for an article by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly on China’s system for controlling the Internet.

Click on Techno-utopian fail for an article by Evgeny Mozorov on why the social media do not threaten China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian governments.

Click on Texting Toward Utopia for an article by Evgeny Mozorov in Boston Review on the two-edged nature of the Internet.

Click on Digital Power and Its Discontents for a debate on the Edge web site between Evgeny Mozorov and Clay Shirky.

Click on Reality Club Discussion for comments on Mozorov and Shirky by Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier and others.

Click on DOJ subpoenas Twitter records of several Wikileaks volunteers for Glenn Greenwald’s report.

Click on Google Watch for a web site dedicated to the sinister side of Google.

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