Saturday, March 05, 2011

All the New Rage Against the Machine

I haven't paid much attention to the uprisings in Africa and the Middle East so far, and when I have tried to read about it, I find it difficult to keep my eyes focused on the page instead of rolling around in their sockets, given how many people only want to talk about social media's supposed role in all this. When I kept seeing the story pop up about the Egyptian guy who named his newborn child "Facebook", I pretty much threw my hands up in defeat and went back to more interesting things.

But Evgeny Morozov earned my appreciation with his dissenting voice against the ubiquitous Nicholas Carr-worship last year, and now he's done it again with a new book that Ima hafta read:

Social networking mattered in Egypt, but the root causes of the uprising were scarcity, official corruption and social conflict, none of which fit the cyber-utopian narrative or flatter America’s technological vanity.

...The unfortunate propensity to log on to the web and pronounce it a global revolution in the offing is what Morozov dubs "the Google Doctrine"—the overconfident conviction, inherited from the West’s cold war propaganda, that the simple transmission of information beyond the reach of state-sanctioned channels has the power to topple authoritarian regimes. But just as the Eastern bloc’s downfall had far more to do with the internal stresses besieging the dying Soviet order, so does the Google Doctrine paper over a vast nexus of real-world causation in global affairs.

...It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents. Yet one never encounters these uses of digital technologies in Shirky-style broadsides on cyber-liberation; in them, digital technology by definition unleashes and pools human creativity and generosity, because that’s what we Western progenitors of these technologies like to imagine them doing.

..."While many in the West concede that the Internet has not solved and may have only aggravated many negative aspects of political culture," as is the case with James O’Keefe’s gotcha YouTube videos, "they are the first to proclaim that when it comes to authoritarian states, the Internet enables their citizens to see through the propaganda. Why so many of their own fellow citizens—living in a free country with no controls on freedom of expression—still believe extremely simplistic and misleading narratives when all the facts are just a Google search away is a question that Western observers should be asking more often."