Morozov on the “Digital Dictatorship”

Sometimes, the truth is just out there.

I’ve been learning a lot from Evgeny Morozov for a while and i’d like to think that his work fits with a slightly disturbing clarity with my recent book The Cultural Logic of Computation and the recent work of a number of other second (third?) wave digital theorists (eg Christian Fuchs, Matthew Hindman) suggesting that we are in need of some very rapid rethinking of our attitudes toward “the digital” per se.

I don’t care whether he wrote he wrote the lyrics to my favorite Grateful Dead song (for which he once used to be much more famous than for his cyberpolitical views)–i know exactly what politics JPB (and, for most of his life, Bob Weir too) represent. it’s not even JPB’s radical libertarianism–it’s the part of his belief-system that fits into the the same neoliberal agenda common to Hilary Clinton and Google (and to which our alternative is China?).

Today there’s an article by Morozov in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Digital Dictatorship” with the subtitle: “It’s fashionable to hold up the internet as the road to democracy and liberty in countries like Iran, but it can also be a very effective tool for quashing freedom. Evgeny Morozov on the myth of the techno-utopia.”

With regard to Iran, Morozov notes, for example, that

one can have “organizing without organizations”–”the phrase is in the subtitle of Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky’s best-selling 2008 book about the power of social media–but one can’t have revolutions without revolutionaries.


The excessive attention that many Western observers devoted to the role of the Internet in the Iranian protests also reveals another, more serious impact that techno-utopianism has on how we think about the Internet in an authoritarian context. Unable to transcend the hackneyed framework of post-electoral protest, we are becoming blind to more general changes and effects that the Internet has on authoritarian societies in between elections.

A main point of Morozov’s analysis is that there is no twitter revolution, something on which I’ve been insisting since anyone even made the absurd suggestion, but which apparently still needs to be shown conclusively (and yet will continue to be asserted, or i suppose may not until there actually is a g***** revolution in Iran–btw, is it clear that a revolution is the right thing to want in Iran? the last one didn’t turn out so well, and we in the us don’t have such clean hands there either. anyway…).

But we need to make a further point, & the one i think desperately needs to be added to the discussion: we come up with ideas like “Twitter revolution” because we are Orwell’s children in 1984: we are looking for ways to justify and account for the destructive and terrifying apparatus to which we have given ourselves over.

Let’s face it–the number of amazingly critical issues facing our world, especially climate change, could not be more frighteningly urgent; whatever they are doing to “us,” the “instantaneous worldwide availability of every piece of knowledge” “organized for us” has not prevented the development of a know-nothing political discourse structured so tightly that one may not even mention the very political system we have been most repeatedly warned is associated with total surveillance, the one we should really be worried about (the one whose name begins with f, but which in teabag land has somehow mystically become the same system as the ones beginning with s and n, and which can only be detected via: ovens [the f/n version] or any affront to absolute corporate-capital authority [the s/f version]) and it curiously has to do with relation of corporation and state, another topic we are told not to discuss since “that government governs best which governs least,” according to a person who specifically did not mean that private corporations should be subject to that lack of rule–let alone dream of “limited liability” or “corporate person.”

While the American public is actively engaged in a rich and provocative debate about the Internet’s impact on our own society “asking how new technologies affect our privacy or how they change the way we read and think” we gloss over such subtleties when talking about the Internet’s role in authoritarian countries. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream American magazine running a cover story entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Case of China,” as The Atlantic did (without the China part) in 2008. Such attitudes almost smack of orientalism-in-reverse: While we fret about the Internet’s contribution to degrading the civic engagement of American kids, all teenagers in China or Iran are presumed to be committed and engaged global citizens who use the Web to acquaint themselves with human rights violations committed by their governments

Note that both questions, directly referencing Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, were part of the latest (#4 if you are counting) pew Future of the Internet survey, which I think still fails to ask the most pressing questions, for the most part.

To be as clear as possible: the question isn’t whether or not there’s a twitter revolution: the question is the source of the pre-emptive belief in and surveillance for a Twitter revolution, especially on the part of computationalists who otherwise eschew most engagements with actual world politics.

Btw, as I’ll expand on in a further piece, among the most dangerous parts of computationalist ideology is that some technology or other “enables activists to do x…” Digital technologies generally enable anyone who uses them to do x. So if something enables activists, it also enables states, corporations, and activists on sides you don’t like. I think the empirical evidence is overwhelming that the narrowcasting and personalization of current computers exacerbates divisions, rather than spreading knowledge; and I challenge anyone to honestly look at contemporary us politics and say that as a whole it is showing signs of “more open democracy.” computerized open information doesn’t even prevent know-nothingism; it certainly doesn’t make “good” revolutions of “just the kind we want” more likely.

Thanks to smd

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