Remember those scenes at the last Republican Convention, when entire roomfuls of people were on their feet shouting “Drill, Baby, Drill!!!”? Funny, but when the BP oil well blew out a few months later, destroying a significant chunk of the economy of the Gulf states in one fell swoop (and coming perilously close to destroying an entire ecosystem), I don’t recall a single person coming forward and saying: “Hey, you know what? I was one of those people shouting, and I was wrong. Now I see what the other side was worried about. I’m actually going to have to change my view of the matter.” I don’t mean to single out the Republicans – it’s just a natural response, I guess. When you get caught holding views that have become absurd and embarrassing, you hide rather than acknowledge error. As John Kenneth Galbraith said a long time ago: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”
Over the years, there’s been a steady undercurrent in the Internet literature that has taken upon itself the task of “exposing” the pipe dreams of those of us in the “cyber-utopian” camp who — oh, so naively! — think that the Net actually has an unimaginable power to transform human society for the better. I’ve taken a lot of stick for this in the past, myself; I won’t bore you with the details (search “David /2 Post & utopian” in the Lexis Law Review database if you’re interested). Some of the writing has been unusually snarky — of the “oh, those starry-eyed utopian dreamers – why don’t they grow up already, and see how the world really works.” It’s just like the telephone, or the telex, or CB radio, we’ve been told; nothing really new here, no flowering of world peace, no new forms of democratic participation, no big deal.
Evgeny Morozov is probably the exemplar of the genre. “They told us the Internet would usher in a new era of freedom, political activism, and perpetual peace,” he wrote; “They were wrong.” In a cover article in Foreign Policy last year, Morozov exposed the falsehood of the myths surrounding the Internet:
“The Internet Has Been a Force for Good” No. In the days when the Internet was young, our hopes were high. As with any budding love affair, we wanted to believe our newfound object of fascination could change the world. The Internet was lauded as the ultimate tool to foster tolerance, destroy nationalism, and transform the planet into one great wired global village. . . .
“Twitter Will Undermine Dictators.” #Wrong. . . .
“The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable.” . . . Even the most idealistic geeks are beginning to understand that entrenched political and institutional pathologies — not technological shortfalls — are the greatest barriers to more open and participatory politics. Technology doesn’t necessarily pry more information from closed regimes; rather, it allows more people access to information that is available. Governments still maintain great sway in determining what kinds of data to release.
“The Internet Boosts Political Participation.” . . . The Internet has certainly created new avenues for exchanging opinions and ideas, but we don’t yet know whether this will boost the global appeal and practice of democracy.
It’s funny, but again, I haven’t seen Morozov (or any of the many who took his side) say: Oh, I get it now. I see what you meant.
No, the Internet has not “ushered in a new era of perpetual peace,” and it never will. Nobody ever said it would, for crying out loud. What we did say was: The Internet places a tool into the hands of individuals for expressing themselves and for communicating with vast numbers of their fellow human beings that can and will transform all of our lives, and it will do so with often terrifying speed. And yes, that is a good thing. You either believe in everyone’s right to communicate freely with others, or you don’t. There are governments that permit their citizens to communicate freely with their fellow-citizens about whatever is on their minds, and those that don’t, those that fear that like the plague. We call those in the latter category the Bad Guys. And the Net has the power to bring them down.
One final point. Does it really matter what we think about the Net as a force for good (or ill), or about its power to transform society in this way? It is what it is, after all; whatever we think about it, it will become whatever it is going to become, so all this debating and talking is to no purpose.
But it actually does matter what we think about the Net as a force for good. There is, after all, the well-known Tinkerbell Effect*: Sometimes, if people believe something is true, it becomes true. If everyone believes there will be a mass demonstration at 8 tonight in Tahrir Square, there actually will be one – or at least, it becomes more likely that there will be as a positive function of the number of people who believe it to be true. If everyone actually believes the Net can transform the world for the better, it is more likely that it will. Why? Because then it will be more likely that we will defend and protect it. It is, unfortunately, not just Hosni Mubarak and his henchmen who are uncomfortable with the power that the Net delivers into our hands, and the more of us who are acutely conscious of that power, the more of us who will fight when efforts are made to take it away.
*OK, it’s not (yet) so well known. I think I coined it back several years ago here on the VC (along with it’s evil twin, the Reverse Tinkerbell Effect), and I’m thinking about writing a book about it . . .