March 6, 2011
BOOK OF THE WEEK: WEEK TEN, 2011
Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011) ("Despite the reductionist models that have made many in the West believe that information can destroy authoritarianism, information also plays an instrumental role in enabling propaganda, censorship, and surveillance, the three main pillars of Orwell-style authoritarian control." "The Internet hasn't changed the composition of this 'trinity of authoritarianism,' but it has brought significant changes to how each of these three activities is practiced. The decentralized nature of the Internet may have made comprehensive censorship much harder, but it may have also made propaganda more effective, as government messages can now be spread through undercover government-run blogs. The opportunity to cheaply encrypt their online communications may have made 'professional' activists more secure, but the proliferation of Web 2.0 services--and especially social networking--has turned 'amateur' activists into easier targets for surveillance." Id. at 82. "if anyone is 'lost,' it is the citizens, not the authorities. Even authoritarian governments have discovered that the best way to marginalize dissident books and ideas is not to ban them--them seems only to boost interest in the forbidden fruit--but to let the invisible hand flood the market with trashy popular detective stores, self-help manuals, and books on how to get your kids into Harvard (texts like You Too Can Go to Harvard: Secrets of Getting into Famous U.S. Universities and Harvard Girl are best sellers in China)." Id. at 69. "The media's roles in the cultivation of political knowledge in both democratic and authoritarian societies are strikingly similar. Before the rise of cable television in the West, knowledge about politics--especially of the everyday variety--was something of an accident even in democratic societies. Markus Prior, a scholar of political communications at Princeton University, argues that most American were exposed to political news not because they wanted to watch it but because there was nothing else to watch. This resulted in citizens who were far better politically informed, much more likely to participate in politics, and far less likely to be partisan than today. The emergence of cable television, however, gave people the choice between consuming political news and anything else--and most viewers, predictably, went for that 'anything else' category, which mostly consisted of entertainment. A small cluster has continued to care about politics--and , thanks to the rise of the niche media, they have more opportunities that they could ever wish for--but the rest of the population has disengaged" "Prior's insights about the negative effects of media choice in the context of Western democracies can also shed light on why the Internet may not boost political knowledge and politicize the fence-sitters, the one who remain undecided about whether to voice their grievances against the governments, to the degree that some of us hope. The drive for entertainment simply outweighs the drive for political knowledge--and YouTube could easily satisfy even the most demanding entertainment junkies. Watching the equivalent of 'The Tits Show' in the 1970s required getting exposed to at least a five-second political commercial (even if it was the jingle of Radio Free Europe), while today one can avoid such political messages altogether." Id. at 60-61. This not an anti-technology, anti-Internet, etc., book. Rather, as its subtitle suggests, it is a thoughtful discussion of the underside of our latest technology, the Internet. Morozov argues, rather convincingly, that the Internet is not necessarily the friend of democracy because, after all, the Internet is merely a tool/means of communication. And tools can be use for good (e.g., promoting democracy), but also for no-so-good (promoting or carrying out authoritarian objectives). Referring back to an early means of communication, the radio, Morozov cautions us: "While Internet enthusiasts like to quote the optimistic global village reductionism of Marshall McLuhan, . . . few of them have much use for McLuhan's darker reductionism, like this gem from 1964: 'That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and the public-address system.' As usual McLuhan was overstating the case, but we certainly do not want to discover that our overly optimistic rhetoric about the freedom to connect has deprived us of the ability to fix the inevitable negative consequences that such freedom produces. Some networks are good; some are bad. But all networks require a through ethical investigation. Promoting Internet freedom must include measures to mitigate the negative side effects of increased interconnectedness." Id at 261. All food for thought, making The Net Delusion The Cosmopolitan Lawyer's Book of the Week. Also see Lee Siegel, "Twitter Can't Save You," NYT Book Review, Sunday, 2/6/2011, at 14.).