Evgeny Morozov's "The Net Delusion" is a well-paced survey of how the Internet has behaved in extra-American contexts over the last 15 years, set against and largely belying a domestic, deterministic view of the Internet and social media as inherently democratic.
Morozov's discursive skills and bibliography are impressive, but his thesis is modest: social media and the Internet are more complex and powerful than people in Silicon Valley realize, and we need to be proactive and prudent in developing policies to regulate their use for good.
Whereas the Malcolm Gladwell pieces I've read (admittedly only two, and just magazine pieces, not books) on social media are dismissive and glib, Morozov takes social media very seriously. Facebook's lack of effective privacy controls, in Morozov's view, could very literally spell life or death for technologically naive, if brave, dissidents in a repressive regime.
And Morozov's analysis goes deeper than the "weak ties" trope Gladwell uses: Morozov worries that, in some contexts, social media may diffuse stresses that would otherwise generate genuine acts of confrontation. "Sometimes," he writes with disarming frankness, in the chapter titled "Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism" (Morozov has great chapter titles), "the best way to launch a social movement is to put an oppressed group into a corner that leaves no other option but dissent and civil disobedience."
The book reminds me of Jaron Lanier's, "You Are Not a Gadget," and both, each in its own way, are important correctives. Lanier's book is an exhortation for us to take personal responsibility, to assume agency, in our use of the Internet, to wield it as a tool of personal liberation and expression rather than permit the Lords of the Cloud to pacify us with it. Morozov's book demands accountability, too, but at the political level; the implications of his argument run essentially to US foreign policy.
Morozov is not so much disappointed by the behavior of the Western, corporate proprietors of the Internet and social media; if they make mistakes, occassionally shut dissidents down, as often as not it's for lack of local political knowledge, a cluelessness about who the good guys and the bad guys are in the region, rather than malice. Admittedly, where their economic interest is concerned, US businesses will tend to err on the side of the authorities (although, in regions where there is nothing to be gained, economically, a US corporation may well just withdraw service altogether). Morozov's incredulity, instead, is with how policy makers are abdicating the opportunity and the imperative to think of how the Internet and social media may impact different societies in unique ways, substituting dogma about technology for actual analysis of a region's politics.
You'll want to read this book for Morozov's international survey of the recent political history of the Internet, to learn about: the kind of Web content the Russian government underwrites; how China and other regimes crowdsource censorship; and Hugo Chavez's journey from Twitter-opponent to uber Twitter user. But I'll leave you in the meantime with four quotes that, using Morozov's own words, summarize what I take to be the main thread of his critique:
- "It's political and economic factors, rather than the ease of forming associations, that primarily set the tone and vector in which social networks contribute to democratization; one would be naive to believe that such factors would always favor democracy."
- "Getting people onto the streets, which may indeed become easier with modern communication tools, is usually the last state of a protest movement, in both democracies and autocracies."
- "All the recent chatter about how the Internet is breaking down institutions, barriers and intermediaries can make us oblivious to the fact that strong and well-functioning institutions, especially governments, are essential to the preservation of freedom."
- "The first prerequisite to getting Internet freedom policy right is to convincing its greatest advocates that the Internet is more important and disruptive than they have previously theorized."
Picture of Evgeny Morozov from Anthony Clark Arend's website.