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Cyber-Utopians v Cyber-Cynics

By Tim Hardy

“Because of cyber-utopian ideas, for the past 10 years the west has failed to think about how to use the internet to its best advantage.”

Evgeny Morozov, author of  The Net Delusion, is the media’s current poster boy for cyber-cynicism but as the quotation above from today’s Guardian article “How democracy slipped through the net” suggests, his position is far more nuanced than the headlines might have you believe.

In a 2009 article, Morozov helped popularise the word “slacktivism” to contrast the low-cost, almost passive nature of, say, joining a Facebook protest group to the risks and impact of old-fashioned activism. He expressed concern that online activity was “driving us further away from the goal of democratization and building global civil society.”

David Karpf has challenged this in a case study and analysis that addresses the “pervasive concern that the digital media environment has made clickstream activism (also called “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”) too easy” in a 2010 paper “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’sPerspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism”.

In brief, his analysis suggests that critics are wrong because they treat “e-petitions as a single-minded campaign effort, rather than as an individual tactic within a broader strategic mobilization effort.”

Nonetheless, it does not address the possibility that we might be able to convert more e-petitioners into people engaging in other, more effective ways.

The Guardian article above also cites Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” in which he attacks the recent handbook of cyber-utopians, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, caricaturing the power of internet ties with a dismissive put-down:

“A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Taking a similar strategy to Morozov, Gladwell compares the Greensboro sit-ins of the 1960s, instrumental in reversing the policy of racial segregation in the Southern United States, with Clay Shirky’s introductory example of “a Wall Streeter” getting his lost phone back. It’s clever rhetoric but misleading.

Some cynicism is necessary but to the negative examples Morozov cites, one could equally cite the protests organised by SMS in Manilla against attempts to squash the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada (2001) or the 2004 demonstrations in Spain that led to the quick ousting of  Prime Minister José María Aznar. Morozov himself was one of the first to use the term “Twitter revolution” at the time of the protests in Moldova in April 2009 that led to the defeat of the Communist Party, although later more level-headed analysis has played down the role twitter played in these events.

These are the points Shirky makes in a paper for  Foreign Affairs, “The Political Power of Social Media” in which he stresses that “The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome.” Instead Shirky promotes what he calls “the environmental view” of the power of the internet:

“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the “environmental” view.”

Evgeny Morozov is giving a public lecture at LSE’s Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building on Wednesday 19 January 2011 at 6.30-7.45pm. Hopefully, he’ll give permission for a recording of the lecture to be made available as a podcast afterwards for all who cannot make it.

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