Internet-Centrism 1 (of 3): Evgeny Morozov and The Net Delusion

I've never met Evgeny Morozov, but I have to say I love the guy because over the last three years he's succeeded in doing something that desperately needed to be done: he's provided a strong counterweight to an overhyped narrative of digital revolution. And then, since The Net Delusion came out at the beginning of the year, he's had to put up with a lot of unjustified condescension and caricature from some who suffer from the very "Internet-centrism" that is the target of his book.

Take the MIT Technology Review, which just ran a set of writings about the Arab Spring uprisings. The contributors characterize the debate over social media's importance as "wildly overdrawn" (Aaron Bady); "highly polarized" (John Pollock), a "false debate" (Zeynep Tufekci), a "false dichotomy" (Jillian C. York). And some put Morozov, together with Malcolm Gladwell, at one pole of that debate, with "the cyber-utopians" at the other. Now Gladwell is a high-profile name who dipped his oar into the waters of digital scepticism in a single article, and he can deal with what he gets from that. But Morozov, judging from his age, is looking to build an academic career on his work and he's at a vulnerable stage, so being the focus of so much attention is both a blessing and a curse.

In Streetbook, his contribution to the MIT Review articles, John Pollock summarizes The Net Delusion by writing that "[it] decries the 'naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication'". Now if you are going to accuse Morozov of being one pole in an overly polarized and, by implication, simplistic debate, you should at least get his position right, and this portrayal is simply unfair. The quotation comes from page xiii of the book's introduction, and is Morozov's portrayal of "cyber-utopians". Using this quotation makes it seem that Morozov sees his opponents in exagerrated and simplistic terms. But the bigger target of the book is what Morozov labels "Internet-centrism", a setof assumptions that has policy-makers "answer[ing] every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur." {p. xvi}

Morozov is not a digital dystopian; hell, he owns both a Kindle and an iPad; he writes "The premise of this book (The Net Delusion) is thus very simple: To salvage the Internet's promise to aid the fight against authoritarianism, those in the West who still care about the future of democracy will need to ditch both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism" {p xvii}. His position is well within the confines of mainstream political science — in particular, he accepts the "project of promoting democracy" as generally a well-intentioned effort from the US, which is a far-from radical stance — so it's remarkable that he has become such a polarizing figure. The Net Delusion is a strong book, but a limitation is that it fails to challenge that project and the intentions behind it sufficiently.

Over the course of the year, The Net Delusion has become a victim of its own success. Critiques argue that it is time to move beyond "duelling anecdotes" to a more sophisticated level of analysis, and both Patrick Meier and Mary Joyce (as well as the more predictable Adam Thierer) accuse Morozov of dealing too much in story, not enough in larger-scale data analysis or theoretical work. The accusations miss the point: there was no duel of any significant kind until Morozov stood up against the tide of "Twitter Revolution" euphoria that erupted along with the Iranian protests in 2009. He introduced a counterweight into a public debate environment that uncritically accepted the thesis that the Internet is intrinsically on the side of dissidents under authoritarian regimes; that the affordances it offers benefit the powerless against the powerful. Having rebalanced the debate, he is now met with a somewhat patronizing declaration that we are past all that, and it is time to move on to more sophisticated and nuanced discourse. Joyce is right when she says that he can be binary in his thinking, and that the book lacks theory, but these accusations are beside the point. It was a book written quickly, in response to the needs of the time, and it met those needs. Arguing that a more subtle, thorough book would be better is to miss the political situation in which it was written, and which it effectively challenged. Morozov deserves a better response from social scientists than he has received.

Despite the claims of moving beyond the Morozov/Shirky binary debate, some of the MIT Review articles suffer from the very Internet-centrism that Morozov criticizes, in particularly the Streetbook centrepiece. But that's a topic for Part 2.

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