The answer is the Internet, what’s the question?

Reading The Net Delusion is an exercise in tearing down ‘Internet-centrism’, the notion that the Internet can solve all problems, irrespective of social and political context. Too many people, mostly without sufficient thought, look at every policy, social and political issue as a nail that the ‘Internet hammer’ can fix.

To be clear, this is about what policy wonks call ‘wicked’ problems, those multi-dimensional and complex issues that are extremely hard to tackle. For example, eradicating child poverty or increasing public participation in democracy. The book itself focuses on one of these wicked problems- how the US should remove authoritarian regimes in countries like Iran, China, and Russia. The author, Evgeny Morozov, is particularly critical of the State Department’s new found love for Internet freedom, as detailed in the now famous 2010 speech of the former Secretary, Hillary Clinton.

Despite my reservations about the book’s premise and the fact that it is a bit dated (pre-Arab Spring), there are some compelling insights into using the Internet to address social and political problems that make it a  good read for policy makers, politicians, and generally everyone who favours ‘more Internet’ as the major, or even exclusive path, to solve such problems.

Here are some issues with Internet-centrism to solve wicked problems in the book that resonated with me:

1. The terminology and mindset used to frame the problem/issue constrains the answers. A great example is using Cold War terminology and a lack of real understanding of how the USSR fell apart leading to the US State Department equating the Great Firewall of China (aka Golden Shield Project) as the digital equivalent of the Berlin Wall. So, the flawed thinking goes, poking holes in China’s firewall will in itself bring greater democracy to that country.

2. The idea that the Internet somehow inherently favours the oppressed/weak rather than the oppressor/strong is flawed. The oppressor, which is governments in the context of the book, have taken longer to use the Internet as a tool for the trinity of surveillance, censorship and propaganda. However, given their resources, determination and bigger stakes, it is now governments rather than protesters who could benefit from the ‘more Internet’ prescription.

So you think ‘crowdsourcing’ is great? That’s how the governments of China, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand censor the flood of information on the Internet. What about ‘social graphs’ and auto photo recognition as in Facebook? That’s how governments scale knowing who is connected to who without the need for old fashioned torture. What about ‘search algorithms’ that power Google and other search engines? That’s how these governments implement auto-censorship.

3. We ascribe meaning and values to words and concepts based on our own experience and environment. Take the word ‘blogger’ for example. We would tend to think of them as independent, opinionated and truth seekers. By definition, bloggers should therefore be supported.

Yet bloggers in authoritarian regimes are more likely to be those appointed or encouraged by governments as a propaganda tool. Governments have figured out how to raise noise levels to drown out the signal. In some cases, for example nationalist Chinese bloggers, they are even more extreme than the government, pushing the government into greater confrontation with Japan and South Korea.

4. The Internet is not a constant. The book itself is ironically an example of that. The author bases much of his thinking on the failed role that Twitter and YouTube played in Iran’s Green Movement against President Ahmadinejad in June 2009. The role of these social media tools in the Arab Spring is still subject to much research and debate but the picture is not one of utter failure.

5. When people get access to the Internet, most do not automatically use it for searching for democracy or human rights. The most popular Internet searches in Russia are ‘what is love’ and ‘how to lose weight’. Russians spend their Internet time on looking at their version of YouTube, Ru-Tube, and pro-government entertainment options like

The Internet may well turn out to be the opium of the masses, making a diverted populace less inclined to take an active interest in politics. It’s not that there are no Václav Havel‘s or Andrei Sakharov‘s today, it’s that the masses don’t have the time to look up from their escapist entertainment and consumerism. That marks the triumph of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World after all.

6. The problem with most technological fixes is that they come with costs or unintended consequences that even their greatest supporters find impossible to predict. This shows up as hailing every technology as somehow different than the past. So the Internet will do for society what the telegraph, telephone, radio and TV each promised but failed to deliver. Yet the only constant is human nature. Technological solutions, even the Internet, cannot on its own solve social and political problems. There is a danger of irrational technology exuberance overwhelming insights from history and human nature.

All of this can sound depressing but is not meant to be. Rather than be awed by the Internet, we have to become Internet-realists when tackling wicked problems. As to how we should go about that, neither the book nor anyone else yet seems to have the right answer. That calls for moving forward cautiously, taking small steps in tackling wicked problems rather than the grandeur of the big, perfect solution.

Most importantly, more Internet is not always the answer. It may be but the critical thing is to see that in the specific social and political context and be aware of the limitations of a purely technological response.


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