Evgeny Morozov: The Net Delusion – How not to liberate the world (Book Review)

INTRODUCTION

Considered one of the best books of the year 2011 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Net Delusion offers an interesting analysis of the relation between Internet development and its political consequences, with an special emphasis in what is happening in authoritarian governments. In many ways, this book is more about policymaking in the Internet era than about technological and social changes.

The book is focused on the concept of “democracy promotion”, a political frame that shapes all the arguments of the author, unfortunately without further discussion on what this noble aim is supposed to mean. An alternative title for the book could perfectly be “The Open Network and Its Enemies” (paraphrasing Popper), due to the profound presence of this liberal frame in Morozov approaches. And maybe this is the main flaw of the book, because, as I am arguing later, it takes away some depth from the analysis of techno-political strategies and its consequences.

Anyway, the book offers powerful arguments against most of the wrong assumptions the public and the policymakers make about the influence of the Internet in world politics. Furthermore, it is a blow of fresh air in the analysis of new media socio-political effects, in an area of study flooded with naïve topics as The Facebook Effect.

Another important argument to recommend the book is the relevant information it gives about the uses of the Internet in authoritarian countries. This is something very unusual in new media literature, and quite important if we really want to understand the new technological world we are getting into.

 

MAIN IDEAS AND STYLE:

As many reviews of the book have already summarized, the assumptions that Morozov fights back are mainly two:

  • Cyber-utopianism: This naïve idea proposes that all the advantages of the new media play in the benefit of the well intended citizens and activists, neglecting the downside, that is, authoritarian governments also taking advantage of new media to improve their repressive methods.
  • Internet centrism: It is the classical technological determination adapted to the Internet medium, the idea that the effect of Internet development is the same regardless of the socio-political environment.

New Media has given a lot of opportunities to the people to express their opinions, claim for their rights, and denounce human rights violations. But it has also empower other uses that strengthen what Morozov calls the Trinity of authoritarian strategies: censorhip, propaganda and surveillance.  All of them have changed thanks to the Internet, and this book explains us how: DdoS can be used to censor activists’ sites, blogs can spread nationalism and fundamentalism, and the databases enabled in social networking sites are perfect for surveillance.

We can also say the book has two different parts characterized by two styles:

In the first one, from chapter 1 to 7, Morozov gives powerful arguments against the cyber-utopian  perspective. The style is fresh and teasing, with impressive titles such as: “Orwell”s favorite lolcat” or “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”. The author tries to captive the reader’s attention, something that reminds of some great American writers like Levitt or Gladwell. In these chapters is where we can also find comprehensive descriptions of the use of the Internet by authoritarian governments.

The second part has a more technical or academic style, discussing the role of technology in social changes from a broader perspective. We could say that it is focused on Internet centrism and technological determinism, but actually it deals with many more issues, such as the challenges and  errors of Western policymaking in Internet matters. Here is where the author presents some critic perspectives about US foreign policies related to the Internet, as contradictions in the directions of different departments. It is also where the authors view becomes more evident.

 

THE “OPEN” FRAME

Morozov is a brilliant scholar granted by the Open Society Foundation. We should thank this institution for funding his work. However, the counterpart is the presence of some OSF fundamentals in his work, shaping the frame from which he builds his discourse. This is not necessarily wrong, but it keeps him away from presenting deeper political insights.

In this sense, one of the most interesting chapter of the book is the Introduction, where the author explains (frames) the problem he is going to face through the book: democracy promotion as a duty of Western Governments and the role of the Internet in it. It is very interesting how Morozov mention the failure and discredit of Bush foreign policy in promoting democracy (“these two wars gave democracy promotion a bad name”), and suddenly states democracy promotion as a clearcut obligation of civilized governments:

“It is easy to forget […] that the West has an obligation to stand up for democratic values, speak up about violations of human rights, and reprimand those who abuse their office and their citizens. Luckily, by the twenty-first century the case for promotion democracy no longer needs to be made; even the hardest skeptics agree that a world where Russia, China and Iran adhere to democratic norms is a safer world”

Morozov remind us, twice in this chapter, the US violation of human rights in Irak. In spite of this fact, he states Western obligation to speak up for human rights in other countries, based only on the assumption that it would be better if foreign powers be democratic. Of course, we all agree with that, but if the author is going to build complex arguments using “democracy promotion” as a corner stone, at least we should expect some discussion about the fundamentals of democracy.

Without this discussion, democracy promotion can be easily misunderstood as a geopolitical approach to ensure the position of western nations. The two faces or democracy (one inside and other outside) is an issue that has been long discussed in political science circles. It confronts us with a difficult problem to solve, because the logic of geopolitical tensions does not conceal well with democratic practices. Another tension that is undermined in the book is the marriage between democracy and capitalism, and how the logic of increasing profits generates inevitable tensions in democratic countries.  These tensions have become even more evident when we enter in international contexts.

 

CRITICAL THINKING

Morozov is also a critical thinker, and he manages to get to these fundamental questions, offering us good insights about them. The role of western tech-companies in working for authoritarian governments just for profit, or the many contradictions in policymaking arround exporting democracy are mentioned in his book. However, they are considered something outside the problem, and are not treated with the attention they deserve.

In my opinión, the weakest flaw of Morozov arguments is that he is creating abstract categories (Democracy and Authoritarianism) from specific countries or situations, without acknowledging the nature of power that is behind every political system. We should better ask about how the Internet affects the equilibrium of power between social agents, instead of how can policymakers use it to such an abstract aim as promoting democracy.

Freedom is a complex matter in social and political science, something we have to take in its global and abstract meaning, not just as the “political signature” of a Western countries. Even though it is in the West where the concept has been developed, democracy and freedom are principles that cannot be encapsulated in geopolitical strategies.

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