Tuesday, 18 January 2011

I'm so cutting edge

Only because I've bought a book. It's Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. His thesis is that technocentric utopians have assumed that access to new media will inevitably liberate the oppressed. (In these circles, 'the oppressed' always refers to the citizens of countries you don't like: the joy of Wikileaks proves that these things are double edged).

Morozov also feels that there's a difference between online activism and street politics, and I partially agree. Joining a Facebook group calling for world peace or the immediate execution of paedophiles makes absolutely no difference to the world at all. On the other hand, TheyWorkForYou has been indispensable in my ongoing pursuit of that Tory ratbag Paul Uppal (according to his voting record, he'd like you to carry on smoking while waiting for the nuclear holocaust - he voted to legalise smoking in pubs again, once more demonstrating his acute concern for the underpaid pub workers), and the fast dissemination of information is essential to activism. That's a double-edged sword, however: all governments have new media specialists, many of which shade into organised dis- and misinformation projects.

Activists are quick and nimble: governments have power, resources and lots of men with guns. When it comes to iPhones v. M16s, M16s win. I can't see that the Tiananmen Tank Guy would have done better if he'd been Tweeting, though it's true that a lot more people (though no Chinese people) would have known about it. The attempted Iranian revolution last year was widely promoted as the Twitter revolution, mostly by American spies keen to exert influence without spending any money, but it turns out that Twitter was hardly used within Iran, and a lot of what was carried turned out to be inaccurate or untrue. The moment may well have passed anyway: so many new media organisations are happy to turn in their users to whichever government they happen to need licences from (Google bows to everyone from the US to China and Blackberry have given in to all sorts of regimes to retain business). Twitter has just been ordered by an American court to turn over the details of people connected to Wikileaks, whether they're American or not. There's certainly no security online: even if courts refuse access, you can guarantee that the security services have their own ways in.

The most interesting thing about Morozov's argument is that the Internet is becoming the Opium of the People: distracted by the feeling that Twitter, Facebook and so one actually are protest, we might not be engaging in the kind of activity which really overthrows tyrants.  It's an interesting idea, though I imagine the truth lies in between. Tunisians seem to be getting on quite well without Twitter (there are a few users), and it's probably wise to distrust a lot of what gets passed around. On the other hand, I followed the student protests in London via Twitter, which was exciting and useful. Colonel Gadaffi of Libya clearly feels vulnerable: he condemned the Tunisian uprising as the product of Wikileaks distortion. I'm sure his 41 year undemocratic rule over Libya played no role in his condemnation of Ben-Ali's overthrow.

What do you think? I know Ben's a keen blogger (I've lost track of how many he has) and Twitter, and many of you use all sorts of services.


Neil80 said...

I think its a really interesting topic, one which would certainly make a very nice piece of social research.

My gut feeling is to go with the opium of the people arguement. People feel that they've done something by joining a facebook group, but is this just channeling resistance into a harmless conduit which only rarely achieves results?

My own crystal ball says that governments, politicians, corporations et al are also (or will be) waking up to the possibilities of social media and developing much smarter tools for infiltrating it and influencing it. When they crack it they'll have all the resources at their disposal to drag power back from individuals.

I suppose one way of looking at it is to use the music industry as an example. In theory the net makes it irrelavant as bands can now promote and market their product without any label involvement, but the industry has developed canny ways of operating. It also operates subtly, launching an act like Little Boots the other year and Jessie-J this year into the underground on a platform like you tube and using bloggers and the like to spreading the word and create a buzz. By controlling key points of strategic influence on the net(just like the British empire controlled the worlds shipping lanes with places like Gibraltar, Singapore, The Falklands and so on) the industry can control traffic and opinion.

I really wouldn't be surprised if next election there are a lot more 'grass-roots' activists planted across the social media by the major parties.

Benjamin Judge said...

I think that you have hit the nail squarely on the head by saying that the truth lies somewhere inbetween. The internet will provide many tools to protest but it will not solve all the world's problems.

cartermagna said...

Talking of Mr Uppal, he asked a cracker of Theresa May today:

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West, Conservative)
Can the Home Secretary do anything to address the issue of the internet, which is having the effect of radicalising young people on both sides of the political spectrum?

That damn internet!

I had a little Uppal bash myself this evening as it had been a while. Hope you don't mind me stepping on your turf Mr Vole!