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Skepticism is Best Left to the Skeptics

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Barrett Brown

August 20, 2010

Foreign Policy runs a regular feature titled "Think Again," in which one or another contributor addresses an issue he deems has been misunderstood.

Foreign Policy runs a regular feature titled "Think Again," in which one or another contributor addresses an issue he deems has been misunderstood by otherwise knowledgeable people. Each section deals with some assertion that the author seeks to correct or clarify; the intent is to bring a skeptical eye to widely held views on matters of global significance, which is a fine thing to attempt when the writer in question is a competent essayist and thinker rather than some other, lesser thing.

In the May/June issue, FP contributing editor Evgeny Morozov takes to "Think Again" in an effort to bring clarity to the general subject of the Internet as it pertains to freedom and representative government. The first section of the article asks whether the assertion "The Internet Has Been a Force for Good" is true. The answer, Morozov says, is no, and he begins to explain why the answer is no-rather than yes or "I don't know"-by reminding us of the hopes expressed by web enthusiasts back in the early days of connectivity, occasionally in their own words. "The Internet was lauded as the ultimate tool to foster tolerance, destroy nationalism, and transform the planet into one great wired global village," he reminds us.

Something seems to have gone awry, though, and fifteen years later tolerance remains unfostered, nationalism is still in existence, and our planet is hardly a wired global village. Morozov does cite one actual claim made long ago by the pro-Internet crowd, here quoting the 1994 manifesto "A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age," which, as he notes, promised the advent of "electronic neighborhoods bound together not by geography but by shared interests." This is an odd claim to cite as representative of unfulfilled hopes, considering that it appears to have been fulfilled if we observe that we do indeed now have online communities made up of people "bound together not by geography but by shared interests," including blogs such as Daily Kos, user-driven discussion sites such as Reddit, and thousands of other such things. If Morozov has a different definition in mind, he has kept it secret from us.

Incidentally, this marks one of the two occasions in the entire article on which Morozov bothers to quote any of the assertions he ascribes to his opponents, and on neither occasion are we treated to anything so bulky as an entire sentence-but then print magazines are subject to space constraints. Limited by his medium, Morozov is forced to continue here by merely summarizing an assertion by Nicholas Negroponte, who "dramatically predicted in 1997 that the Internet would shatter borders between nations and usher in a new era of world peace" or at any rate stated something approximate to that.

Whatever Negroponte said in 1997, it was apparently wrong. "The Internet as we know it has now been around for two decades," Morozov reminds us, "and it has certainly been transformative.… But just as earlier generations were disappointed to see that neither the telegraph nor the radio delivered on the world-changing promises made by their most ardent cheerleaders, we haven't seen an Internet-powered rise in global peace, love, and liberty." I wouldn't know how to measure the degree of global love, much less to what extent one should attribute any change in such a thing to the Internet. This puts me at a disadvantage when dealing with Morozov, who seems to have had a head start on this, so I will concede the point, which he hammers home by noting that the Internet has facilitated "the increased global commerce in protected species." Meanwhile, a group of Serbians have been "turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights" while a group of Saudi Arabians are supposed to be setting up some sort of online version of their Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice squad. All in all, "Many of the transnational networks fostered by the Internet arguably worsen-rather than improve-the world as we know it." Why this necessarily leads to the conclusion that the Internet has not been a force for good is left unaddressed, but there is: a full-page picture of a hand holding a mouse on the facing page.

Having accomplished whatever it is that just happened, Morozov moves on to address more specific assertions such as, "Twitter Will Undermine Dictators." This, it turns out, is wrong. "Tweets don't overthrow governments; people do," Morozov begins, adding that social network sites have proven "both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes." Again, one expects to see Morozov at least attempt to make the case that they have been more harmful than helpful, but he does not seem to consider this a productive line of inquiry; he is busy forgetting what it is that he had set out to prove-that it is wrong to assert that "Twitter Will Undermine Dictators"-and has instead apparently just decided to make the case that Twitter has not managed to actually overthrow any dictators after its few years of existence. "Neither the Iranian nor the Burmese regime has crumbled under the pressure of pixelated photos of human rights abuses circulated on social networking sites," he points out.

Not only has Twitter failed to take down either of the two regimes Morozov lists, but one of those regimes has attempted to use the service for its own ends. "Indeed, the Iranian authorities have been as eager to take advantage of the Internet as their green-clad opponents. After last year's protests in Tehran, Iranian authorities launched a website that publishes photos from the protests, urging the public to identify the unruly protestors by name." We are not told how effective this turned out to be or why this necessarily cancels out the effectiveness of Twitter in organizing the protests to begin with or how the fact that dictators use websites shows that they are not being undermined by the use of Twitter. The fellow's talent is being wasted in socio-political commentary when he could be writing mystery novels.

"Take the favorite poster child of digital utopians," Morozov continues, citing a random example to which some digital utopians may occasionally refer. "In early 2008 a Facebook group started by a 33-year-old Columbian engineer culminated in massive protests, with up to 2 million people marching in Bogota's streets to demonstrate against the brutality of Marxist FARC rebels. (A New York Times article about the protests gushed: ‘Facebook has helped bring public protest to Colombia, a country with no real history of mass demonstrations.')" We might have been fooled into taking this as a factual assessment of what was going on in Colombia had The New York Times refrained from gushing about it, which is a dishonest rhetorical trick that we should be thankful to Morozov for pointing out to us. "However, when the very same ‘digital revolution' last September tried to organize a similar march against Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, they floundered." Facebook, then, cannot always be used to effectively undermine dictators in neighboring countries; pass it on.

"Internet enthusiasts argue that the Web has made organizing easier," Morozov continues. "But this is only partially true," which is to say that it is easier only to the extent that it is easier. "Taking full advantage of online organizing requires a well-disciplined movement with clearly defined goals, hierarchies, and operational procedures." I would retort that such things are necessary in order to take full advantage of anything, and there is nothing of which anyone has ever taken full advantage, but nonetheless these imperfect entities do manage to accomplish things. Again, Morozov was supposed to be showing that Twitter doesn't undermine dictators, not that it frees protester organizers from the necessity of goals and procedures.

Our correspondent next dismisses the myth that "Google Defends Internet Freedom," noting that the company does so "only when convenient." I'm not aware of anyone who argues otherwise other than Google's public relations people, but at any rate Morozov manages to shoot them down.

Next up on the chopping block is the claim that "The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable." "Not necessarily," Morozov retorts, noting that "even when the most detailed data get released, it does not always lead to reformed policies," here citing an example of a single occasion on which the Internet did not make a particular government more accountable, thereby refuting the argument that "The Internet Always Makes Every Government More Accountable in Every Way," which no one has ever made. True accountability, he adds, "will require building healthy democratic institutions and effective systems of checks and balances. The Internet can help, but only to an extent." That all help is inherently a matter of extent and not entirety does not prevent Morozov from throwing out this redundant qualifier by virtue of its perceived use in minimizing the fact that the Internet can indeed be of help in building or reforming such institutions.

The Internet and the claims made on its behalf merit skeptical scrutiny. Skepticism, though, is more than contrarianism in the face of a given claim, and it is wholly incompatible with the style of argument Morozov gives: a haphazard mixture of anecdotal evidence, selective amnesia, non-sequiters, and loaded terminology. When publications "gush" factual assertions and opponents are twice characterized as "cheerleaders" in the space of a single essay, it is not difficult to determine that the essayist in question is seeking shortcuts to persuasion. When an essayist sets out to debunk an assertion by using anecdotal evidence that is weaker than the contrary anecdotal evidence he seeks to nullify, shifting from attacking the original assertion to attacking a broader assertion that no one has made, we ought not be surprised that he has resorted to such shortcuts. We may even be inclined to allow these things as a handicap if we are the magnanimous sort, which we are not.

The Internet has not proven itself to be some surefire weapon against tyranny or injustice or bad taste, but the same can be said for the written word and, really, everything else. But aside from being wrong, arguments to the effect that the last decade has shown the Internet to be a failure as a tool of political change are almost beside the point if our intent is to better understand what the Internet will look like in the future. Had Morozov written a similar essay ten years ago, he would have been arguing against the revolutionary efficacy of a landscape that is drastically different from what we see today-one in which Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were as yet unknown. Ten years from now, new and entirely different tools will be in use, and existing tools will be used in different ways. The Internet will continue in its rapid evolution; the world in turn will be tugged along in the wake of its influence, and the means of human collaboration will continue to multiply just as they have for the last decade and a half-which is to say, orders of magnitude faster than ever before in human history in an environment of fast-increasing social complexity. We have barely received a taste of the phenomena with which we and our very dictators will be confronted in the coming years.

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Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.