The internet cannot change everything overnight. But Evgeny Morozov is wrong: the web is still the greatest democratising force of our timesby Laurie Penny / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
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…