There are two ways to be wrong about the Internet, writes Evgeny Morozov:
One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.1
Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy. What the Internet does is only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet means. Its hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts. To fully absorb the lessons of the Internet, urge the Internet-centrists, we need to reshape our political and social institutions in its image.
Internet-centristsalso make a fetish of the virtual over the real world and assume that political problems have technical solutions, he notes in a critique of Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.
“Better systems for aggregating and dispensing knowledge can certainly help to solve many problems, but those are problems of a very peculiar nature,” Morozov writes in The New Republic:
Can Washington’s reluctance to intervene in Syria—to take just an extreme example—be blamed on a deficit of knowledge? Or does it stem, rather, from a deficit of will, or of principle? Would extending the participatory logic of Kickstarter [an online platform for artists to raise money from their fans] to the work of the National Endowment for Democracy or to the State Department’s Policy Planning staff lead to better policy on democracy promotion? Or will it result in more populist calls to search for Joseph Kony? 4 Can’t the lowering of barriers to participation also paralyze the system, as some would argue is the case with the proliferation of ballot initiatives in California?
The Internet does facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and decentralized structures that may enhance participation – and yet the ‘liquid democracy’ techniques of the German Pirate Party recommended by Johnson have hardly enhanced democratic participation.
As Der Spiegel dryly put it, “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”
“If one assumes that political reform is long, slow, and painful, hierarchies and centralizing strategies can be productive. After all, they can keep the movement on target and give it some coherent shape,” notes Morozov:
Ideas on their own do not change the world; ideas that are coupled with smart institutions might. “Not by memes alone” would be an apt slogan for any contemporary social movement. Alas, this basic insight—that political reform cannot be reduced to the wars of memes and aesthetics alone, even if the Internet offers an effective platform for waging them—has mostly been lost on the Occupy Wall Street crowd.9 Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds—because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia—borders on the suicidal.
Evgeny Morozov’s new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, will be published by PublicAffairs in March.