Sunday, January 30, 2011

Net delusions: Are Morozov and Watson's dystopias any good?

First a disclaimer: I have not read the two new books I mention here, and it is unlikely that I ever will. You may see this as ridiculous or as an interesting experiment. The thing is, judging on the media coverage the books have attracted so far, many people have already read them and many more will. I'm talking about two recent examples of what I'm inclined to call the dystopian trend in popular writing about the Internet: Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion and Richard Watson's Future Minds: How The Digital Age Is Changing Our Minds, Why This Matters and What We Can Do About It. But before I discuss to them in turn, a short note on the (far too) bright side of things: Utopias.

Historians of the Internet have already started to look back at the 1990s as the decade where cyber utopianism ruled. John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, for example, is mentioned time and again as the epitome of the many Internet-fuelled hopes of refinding community, reinvigorating democracy and reinventing freedom. However, with the coming of the new 'digital' millennium, academic researchers have sought to sober the debate up using social science methods. One early study infamously concluded that Internet use was associated with depression. But a few years later it became clear that there was no easy arrow pointing from Internet use to neither positive nor negative social effects. This was demonstrated by - among many others - the very same researchers who published the first study.

Research about the Internet will continuously calibrate its account to achieve a still better balance between positive and negative impacts of what is ultimately nothing more and nothing less than another new communication technology. And I guess popular accounts will always tend to exaggerate things, as they often do when treating scientific endeavours. But that said, it does seem that the Internet has been especially fertile ground for hype, much more than for example the mobile phone that is quietly reaching above 4 billion users worldwide, and transforming lives on its way.

Hype, of course, needs correction. But the media seem to let Evgeny Morozov carry them all the way to the opposite side of the road: Pessimism, or even dystopianism. It is an easy win to make fun of American political rhetoric about social media as "freedom tools" (or EU talk about becoming the world's strongest "IT economy", for that matter). And showing how the Internet can be turned against the people by authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and most recently Iran is of course terrifying. But the truth is that technology is simply never inherently good or bad -- it is a set of resources and constraints that can be used and shaped by humans to serve their often conflicting interests. According to The Guardian's review, Morozov indeed rightly recommends that we become "cyber-realists", but he only does so after having ridiculed cyber-utopianists to an extent that makes him almost just as bad. The very recent, promising events in Egypt underlines this point: Yes, a dictator can turn off the Internet (just as he can block the roads). But he does that for a reason: A powerful uprising become even more powerful with many-to-many communication platforms, such as the now closed 500.000+ members strong "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook group that helped coordinate protests.

Similarly, Richard Watson, a British futurist, seems to insist on seeing the dark side of life as he compiles the many ills of new communication technology. Watson is concerned that the extreme amount of communication and information that flows through us via new technologies will obstruct deep and creative thinking. A fair point, to some extent -- we all now the urge to surf on instead of actually spending the time to understand what is in front of us. But when the RSA gives Watson space to speak about digitalisation as a fundamental threat to human enlightenment, I can't help thinking: Was it so much better when kids were conveniently pacified with trash TV? Or when the majority of the labour force spent their lives with creativity-killing jobs in front of the assembly lines? No it was not, and indeed, new technologies have always been met with moral panic in the tone of Watson.

So, is this blog post any good? Probably not, if you already believe in balanced and well-grounded accounts of technology and society. But if you are a bit like me and sometimes get a bit too easily excited by strong narratives made to sell books and magazines, then maybe these hesitations can serve as inspiration to not become too inspired in any one direction.