Amid the widespread elation over the role of the internet – including and especially Facebook and Twitter – in helping to foment the popular uprising in Egypt against the longstanding autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarek, the New York Times ran this bracing review of a new book questioning the internet’s inherent democratic qualities. Reviewing Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion, technologist Lee Siegel rightly notes that, while the internet’s democratic bonafides are still in question, the internet has shown itself to be unquestionably useful in information-gathering, an activity that ends up especially benefiting corporations and governments – i.e., those institutions that are increasingly organized to gather as much private information about people as possible.

Here’s Siegel, who in this passage moves between the ways the internet supports both large corporations and centralizing governments:

Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the ­asocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.” In 2007, when he was at the State Department, Jared Cohen wrote with tragic wrongheadedness that “the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can . . . say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus.” Thanks to the exciting new technology, many of those freely texting Iranian youths are in prison or dead. Cohen himself now works for Google as the director of “Google Ideas.”

For Morozov, technology is a vacuum waiting to be filled with the strongest temperament. And the Internet, he maintains, is “a much more capricious technology” than radio or television. Neither radio nor TV has “keyword-based filtering,” which allows regimes to use URLs and text to identify and suppress dangerous Web sites, or, like marketers, to collect information on the people who visit them — a tactic Morozov sardonically calls the “customization of censorship.”

I keep hearing people speaking of the rise of social networking and connectivity as a new form of evolution. Their view echoes the millenarian hopes of Marshall McLuhan, who wrote at the dawning of the internet age of a new “pentacostalism” that would allow us to transcend the limits of individual consciousness: “The computer promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness.”

Perhaps without realizing it, he echoed the utopian hopes of Richard M. Bucke, whose popular and influential 1901 book Cosmic Consciousness sought scientifically to prove humanity’s evolutionary ascent to a condition of shared and universal consciousness. Arguing that we were on the cusp of a universal attainment of our final evolutionary step, Bucke’s work faded into obscurity with the intervention of World War I and later, World War II and a series of savage and brutal wars and genocides that seemed, if anything, to suggest that Spengler was the better prophet of the age.

Still, the dream is not easily abandoned, and we are well-advised to remind ourselves of the pitfalls accompanying our fantasies. Above all, the prism of progress too often allows us to dismiss as superfluous or unimportant the brutal truths that contradict the fantasy. It would seem Morozov’s book, and Siegel’s able review, is a helpful first corrective, reminding us that the oppressions and manipulations of the internet are not ancillary, but perhaps more central its current and future role than our techno-optimists are willing to admit.

(h/t, Cory Andrews)

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  1. I commented on this post over at Prof. Deneen’s blog, so I thought I’d do so here as well:

    It may be a bit misleading to characterize those as McLuhan’s “millenarian hopes.” Wired magazine named McLuhan their patron saint, but they may have missed the point. Here is a telling excerpt from an interview McLuhan gave in 1966:

    “… the only alternative is to understand everything that is going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can. I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.”

  2. Has anyone here read Mark Helprin’s ‘Digital Barbarism’? He’s one of my favorite living fiction writers, but somehow I missed this non-fiction book which came out in 2009. It seems like it might touch on related subjects.

  3. Twitter away my fellow sheep, the Department of Homeland Security welcomes it. This is not to say that they actually understand the wreaking hulk of information they accept but, why quibble?

    After all, the Vicarious Agora is an independent contractor, subject to the whims of management.

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