February 09, 2013

Evgeny #Morozov takes on cyber-utopianism

Evgeny Morozov has yet another great take on what's wrong with most people's thinking about the Internet. By most people, he's above all talking about the likes of Clay Shirky, mentioned early on, and Jeff Jarvis.

He doesn't waste time. Here's his opening two grafs:
There are two ways to be wrong about the Internet. One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.

Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy.
What the Internet does is only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet meansIts hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts. To fully absorb the lessons of the Internet, urge the Internet-centrists, we need to reshape our political and social institutions in its image.
And, he's 110 percent right on both. 

The first way is the way not just, or so much, of Shirky or Jarvis as it is of the futurists of a certain stripe, such as Ray Kurzweil and his singularity (something at least partially "bought" by pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer as well) and Michio Kaku and his magical, Oz-like Internet contacts, already being anticipated now by Google Glasses.

However, the Shirkys (with Shirky himself trying to hide, spin and downplay his own non-democratizing consulting work for Moammar Gadhafi), Jarvises and Jay Rosens of the world partially fall into the first camp.

They straddle or hedge their bets with the second camp, though. Other touters of the impact of the Net in general and social media on politics fall here. That's you, Mr. Bareback Bear, Andrew Sullivan.

And, since Shirky has seen fit to consult for non-democratic countries, and Sully is all over the map politically, even by European standards, their paragraph 2 schtick will get played out more and more.

The real deal, though, is that the Internet doesn't mean anything, contra their thoughts.

Marshall McLuhan was not entirely wrong, but he wasn't entirely right, either. The Internet in general isn't that much different from elcctronic media predecessors, except in its ubiquity. Indeed, Morozov mentions McLuhan soon in — something I didn't know because I hadn't looked past the first two grafs until just this point. That's part of why I like Morozov ... I very much get where he's coming from.

But Morozov, in what's actually, theoretically, a book review, is nowhere near done yet.

Yochai Benkler is next to get thrown under the bus. I've read enough of Benkler on modern media and related issues to say he's a more thoughtful, somewhat more nuanced Jay Rosen. And so, he gets a more nuanced throwing under the bus.
For Benkler, the Internet proves that humans are collaborative, well-meaning creatures, and that our political institutions, shaped in accordance with a much darker Hobbesian view of human nature, have never been adequate for facilitating meaningful social interaction.
Benkler does not view the Internet as a tool so much as an idea that proves (and disproves) philosophical theories about how the world works. The Internet, for him, reveals only what has been true—that humans love to collaborate—all along. Not surprisingly, the Internet occupies just a few chapters of Benkler’s most recent book; the rest is him deploying the latest research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and experimental economics to find the spirit of the Internet in the worlds of Toyota and lobster fishermen, of Spanish farmers and Obama’s 2008 campaign.
In short, Benkler is a Shirky or Rosen with a stiff shot of Malcolm Gladwell as a chaser. In other words, not necessarily as wrong (or the Wolfgang Paul "not even wrong" as them), but with more shit thrown against the wall to get something to stick.

This all concludes with the actual book review, in which author Steven Johnson gets slapped around for going down some parts of the footpaths of all the people above.

Thoughts on that below the fold.

Part of the problem with Johnson and the above, when they deal with governments, especially, to riff on the old phrase, they see the Internet as a hammer, and every government-citizens issue as a nail.

Well, Morozov puts paid to that rather easily:
In other words, if some public institutions eschewed wider participation for reasons that have nothing to do with the ease of connectivity, isn’t the Internet a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?
I totally agree.

As a community newspaper editor, there's a variety of ways that governments could have made comunications with residents easier, and more two-way, before the Internet. Or, how they could do it with the Internet but without "investing" in social media. 

To take anther old metaphor besides hammer and nail, Johnson et al are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Morozov gets additional bonus points for scoffing at the "leaderless" horizontalism of Occupy Wall Street. Of course, the "leaderlessness," along with "egalitarianism" and other things, were largely myth, as I have blogged before

I don't know if Morozov has done an in-depth takedown of OWS; I'd love to see it if he has. He does link to a Daily Kos post by a former Occupyer, who spills the beans on the reality of the movement, like I did from the outside:
 One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media ... they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shit done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other ... you know what's worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can't ever be called to account.
That said, his noting that Johnson is "sophomoric" is a great place to start wrapping up. From the rest of what he mentions about Johnson, it sounds like his thoughts on political science are vapid. It's long, but read the whole thing if you have time.

I'm also reminded of James T. Kirk once saying words to the effect of, if you improve machines, you can improve man tenfold. Improve mankind, and you improve man 1,000-fold.

Why? Per Morozov, the Net reflects the messiness of human nature.

Per Walt Kelly's Pogo, "We have met the enemy and it is us." Tenfold, in cyberspace.

Were Kelly alive and cartooning today, and cartooning in part about the Internet, he'd probably find a way to riff on exactly that theme, being kinder and gentler about it than Morozov, though.

Anyway, the bottom line is: Don't expect anything more from the Net than from the mass of Homo sapiens.

The Net is not conscious; therefore, not only does it not "want" anything, it cannot.

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