The internet cannot change everything overnight. But Evgeny Morozov is wrong: the web is still the greatest democratising force of our times
It’s easy to be cynical about the influence of the internet, particularly when one considers the weight of expectation on new technologies. William Gibson, the first writer to discuss the impact of the internet on the imagination, spoke eloquently of the disappointment of returning to real life after experiencing how human potential expands in cyberspace. In Prospect’s December cover story, Evgeny Morozov touches on this profound disappointment. But in doing so, he underestimates the internet’s revolutionary potential.
In 2008 I worked for the Labour government’s Digital Britain research and observed this mistake being made on a pan-European scale. Labour remains convinced that a “digital Britain” can best be served by government regulation and observation of cyberspace, despite the fact that nearly all the examples of best practice that went into the strategy were online citizen initiatives that had been created in somebody’s living room—with no government interference.
Although Britain has one of the highest percentage of internet users of any country in the world, 21 per cent of the population still has no internet access whatsoever. As one might expect, these people are by and large from the most deprived sectors of society. When I suggested that the best way of building an inclusive online movement and ensuring the voices of the underprivileged were heard would be for the government to finance home broadband connection for poor and elderly citizens, the memo was swiftly transferred to the slush pile.
What Labour has failed to grasp is that the governments and political leaders can not control politics; they can only facilitate it. Evgeny Morozov’s experience of being invited to speak in Washington is part of a well-established pattern: over the past three years, as the world has woken up to the internet’s potential to change hearts and minds, millions of pounds have been wasted on hosting conferences designed to help politicians, media moguls, social organisers and government workers “harness the power of the internet.” Many feature a minor team-member of the Obama campaign—flown in at great expense—to explain why it is that grassroots movement cannot, in fact, be engineered by sitting governments.
Morozov offers a similarly reductive assessment of the flaws of online resistance. Cyber-activism has not manifested itself in the supposedly “real” world—that is, the non-internet world—as many people anticipated; this is because the internet facilitates and accelerates direct action, rather than changing its essential nature. Any anti-government activity risks a backlash and, as in previous generations, authoritarian regimes will inevitably find ways to target dissenters. What the internet has achieved is an unprecedented reduction in the cost of entry to the discussion and organisation of protest. Anyone with an internet connection is now automatically in the loop of potential action. Moreover, thanks to the proliferation of personal recording technology, activists can employ counter-surveillance to expose government crackdowns and protect their right to protest—as evidenced at the G20 demonstrations in London this year.
This is changing not only the manner in which citizens interact with their democracies, but the attitude of states to their citizens too. In his speech to the Fabian society last month, David Miliband observed the effect of online memetics (ideas that spread quickly among internet users) on the Pakistani government. “Following the peace deal in February that ushered in a hybrid of traditional and Islamic law in parts of the Swat valley, the media showed girls’ schools being burnt down, mobile phone footage of a 17 year old woman being flogged in the Swat valley, and Sufi Mohammed, the leader of TNSM (the militant organisation in Swat), declaring that he did not recognise the writ of the Pakistani state. It was domestic pressure, fuelled by graphic media images, that shifted Pakistani behaviour, not external lobbying.”
The cyberspace revolution has not, of itself, produced regime change. Instead, it is slowly effecting a shift in the way in which politics is understood across the world, and in the relationship between governments and citizens. Debra Benita Shaw, author of Technoculture: The Key Concepts, explains that “the only way that the internet can effect a change in the way politics is done is if its ability to disseminate ideas draws more people into questioning the status quo. Social change can only be catalysed when people start realising that there is something wrong and that change starts at the level of everyday life.”
The Obama campaign was successful precisely because it understood these preconditions for online activism. With its rallying cry to an America hungry for change, the campaign simply and effectively exploited the internet to disseminate an idea that was already widely shared. One year later, a host of small progressive initiatives are developing this too. In Britain, Power2010, a high-profile, multi-platform online campaign led by internet activists and funded by the Joseph Rowntree foundation, has been launched with the express aim of promoting “a healthy democracy that works for all of us and not just a powerful few.” The campaign plans to achieve this by enabling ordinary citizens to offer their ideas for democratic reform where they can be effectively collected and promoted, and showcasing the five most popular ideas. In recent weeks, Power2010 has garnered significant press attention, along with over three thousand individual contributions to the site’s programme for political change.
In the hearts, minds and lonely bedrooms of citizens across the world, the netroots revolution is already underway. Thinkers like Evgeny Morozov need not wait fearfully for the coming of flawed or fearful web-driven uprisings: the real revolution is taking place right now, tweet by link by blog-post.