An article in The Nation questions whether the internet really is a transformative force for the betterment of mankind as claimed by cyber-utopianists like Clay Shirky in his recent books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus. The utopian view is that the internet frees us from the passive time sink of television thereby allowing people to spend their leisure time on productive activities like Wikipedia, making Youtube videos, and propagating silly memes that ultimately are beneficial for everyone but are simultaneously made available at a de minimus cost.
The critical view set forth by Chris Lehmann in this article and in the book he cites, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evgeny Morozov, attacks the utopian premise by focusing on its poor understanding of how markets work (which in my opinion is a valid criticism) and by pointing out the geopolitical complexities that prevent something as trivial as Twitter of Facebook from having real transformative effect.
Both sides incorrectly assume that transformative forces must offer a better future than the present. But it is not a question of the future or the present. It is a question of alternatives in the present.
To change the world, you do not have to promise a better world. You simply have to demonstrate that this world is not real. Specifically, you have to show that what people consider to be the real world is not in fact reality, but rather a construction, a narrative of reality that is demonstrably false.
The essence of the anti-utopian argument is this:
The unfortunate propensity to log on to the web and pronounce it a global revolution in the offing is what Morozov dubs “the Google Doctrine”—the overconfident conviction, inherited from the West’s cold war propaganda, that the simple transmission of information beyond the reach of state-sanctioned channels has the power to topple authoritarian regimes. But just as the Eastern bloc’s downfall had far more to do with the internal stresses besieging the dying Soviet order, so does the Google Doctrine paper over a vast nexus of real-world causation in global affairs.
What both the cyber-utopianists like Shirky and their critics like Lehmann and Morozov all fail to grasp is that this “doctrine” is actually almost a tautology. The moment a view of reality is shown to be wrong, that view must adjust or collapse. If we view the state-sanctioned channels and state-controlled press as that nation’s “spectacle” in Debord’s terms–the combination of signs, symbols, and messages that stands in for reality, community and truth on all matters beyond the very local range of a viewer’s personal life–then anything that challenges that state-sanctioned spectacle immediately and directly undermines not only the spectacle itself but also the state that sanctioned it.
To put it differently, by carefully controlling what people can see or read, either as news, pop culture, literature and art, the state regulates, constrains, and defines within a single universal narrative all of the activities, thoughts, and events of its people’s lives in a way that reinforces its power over them. The state crafts a certain universal narrative–crafts a certain reality through media and cultural narratives–to magnify and reinforce its control. When it came to crafting narratives in the latter half of the twentieth century, television was the autocrat’s force multiplier of choice. Controlling the reality of television meant controlling what people thought was reality. This form of state control places all of the interactions and relationships among the people into a rigidly bounded cognitive space of permitted activity. Any new thoughts, new forms of relationships, and new ways of being that exist outside of this space that the state cannot fold back into it immediately undermine the authority of the state to define reality for its subjects.
This is why state-controlled media always exists alongside a secret police apparatus. The former defines the acceptable reality and openly glorifies it, the latter exists outside of it, but brutally and secretly imposes it.
We saw this play out in Egypt. Social media like Facebook and Twitter allowed Egyptians to see a version of reality that was different than what state-controlled media presented. It did not matter whether this new version of reality was “true” or simply another skewed narrative of a different order and origin. What mattered was simply that it was (a) different and (b) not included in the reality narrative told by the state. Shirky believes that the transformative power of the internet lies in creating not only a different version of reality but a subjectively better one, and his critics focus their attacks on whether it really is better. But being “better” (whatever that means) is irrelevant and unnecessary.
To be transformative, all that matters is that the alternative narrative be different in a way that the existing narrative cannot be amended to contain. It is always the inability to reconcile disparate narratives that is the greatest problem for dictatorships in general and the government of Egypt. In the past, Middle Eastern states were able to reconcile the openness of the West with their dictatorial regimes by labeling the West as corrupt or decadent, the two things that those states swore to defend the people against in the name of Islam or Arab socialism. Casting the West in this way was possible because in the past the narratives of the West came primarily through the cultural dominants of film and television, both of which could be easily controlled, restricted or re-contextualized by state censorship and media control. The problem for the Egyptian government in 2011 was that there was no way to reconcile their narratives with the narratives of Facebook and Twitter which cannot be censored or contextualized in situ.
Faced with those irreconcilable differences, the Egyptian government did what autocratic governments do best. They panicked and pulled the plug. The instant they blacked out the internet was the moment the curtain was pulled by on their illusion of power. Shutting off the internet amounted to an explicit admission by the state to the people that state-controlled media was pushing a version of reality that was false and more constrained for the purpose of tightening their control over the people.
So in this Nation article, Lehmann gets it exactly backward:
It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents.
Tyrants love mass media because it projects their messages to the masses. They do not like media, like Twitter and Facebook, where masses can individually choose to ignore those messages and choose to listen to entirely new and different ones messages.
The problem that both the utopians and their critics have is that their arguments are made within the context of our narratives of reality. This is why some much of Shirky’s books, Morozov’s and this article focus on the question of what is “better.” Because to focus more broadly means that we too have to accept that our world isn’t real.