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Evgeny Morozov's `The Net Delusion' is an informative and wide-ranging essay on the growth and increasing power of the internet as an agency of global change, with some less than optimistic conclusions. Taking as a start-point the way in which political-interest websites and blogs have been created by dissidents in an attempt to organise and focus opposition to less democratic regimes such as those in China, Iran and elsewhere, he broadens out his thesis to examine ways in which entrenched political interests have started to use the most successful spin-offs of the new technologies (facebook, twitter) to identify, keep track of and arrest dissenters; and that these developments of internet technologies now enable the exercise of a degree of social control far greater than was previously possible.

The author knows his subject, and utilises plentiful and relevant citations from the enormous academic bibliography listed in the index to support his argument. It is recognised that people the world over seek entertainment and frivolity from the net far more often than they engage in political or philosophical discourse; extrapolating from this data Morozov makes a convincing case that the new technologies may therefore be exploited as a more insidious agency of social control and management. He compares the 1948 totalitarian vision of Orwell's Stalinist surveillance society in `1984' with Huxley's earlier but far more seductive and ultimately more accurate vision of the future in `Brave New World' where the status quo is maintained by giving people what they want and keeping them happy on the farm. The work of Kern and Heinmuller (`Opium for the masses: how foreign media can stabilize authoritarian regimes') demonstrated the narcotizing function of unfettered access to entertainment media, in that youth in the old GDR who were able to see western TV broadcasts were overall found to be more satisfied and comfortable with the regime, whereas those in the eastern part of the state who were unable to view western TV were more politicized and critical of the regime (cited on p65). Control exercised through narcotizing entertainment is cheaper and easier than repression and brutality, so it's obvious which way a dictator determined to retain power and control would choose.

Morozov points out that the reason most western politicians and political commentators believe in the power of the net as a vehicle of emancipation by making information universally available, is because they have not given the matter much thought: "information does not flow in a vacuum, but in a political space already occupied" (p25). Due to its inherent benefits of mass information pooling and storage, the internet is empowering the secret police, censors and propaganda offices of authoritarian regimes to such a degree that the process of democratization is likely to become more difficult, rather than easier. Similarly, if the alternative to paternalistic authoritarianism is weak government (or worse, a free-for-all of ethnic factionalism and chaos) then people are likely to ultimately choose the certainties and clear boundaries defined by authoritarianism.

Overall this is a valuable and thoughtful essay by an informed writer. He often digresses from his central argument but such digressions (such as for example his analysis of the narcissism-promoting social networking sites and the shallowness with which members embrace `causes' so long as they don't have to actually do anything) are invariably enlightening and poignant. Morozov has a good, easy-to-read writing style laced with occasional dark humour, and his 320-page book is well worth reading as an engaging and radical perspective on the way the technology revolution may be leading us as a global society.
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on 28 June 2011
Morozov is great on puncturing the absurd technological determinism and misplaced optimism of what he calls cyber-utopians, and he makes some important distinctions between those who advocated 'freedom for the internet' and 'freedom via the internet'.

But he seems to take it for granted that we know who the 'baddies' are and what is wrong with them - so much so that he doesn't need to define what he means by either democratic or authoritarian regimes. The book is a critique of the idea that internet tools like Facebook and Twitter are inherently pro-democratic...yet there is no discussion as to what is meant by democracy. Is Putin's Russia a democracy? Well, they have elections, don't they? And if it isn't, what exactly makes Berlusconi's Italy different? Or even Britain, with its flawed electoral system and ludicrous campaign finance rules? Can Twitter help to bring freedom to Italy, or to Britain?

This is very much a contribution to a discussion within the Washington Beltway, albeit from someone who is pretty much an outsider. There doesn't seem to be any understanding that there might be a difference on goals, not just on means, or that someone who considers themselves a democrat would pick say Hugo Chavez (who seems to be lumped in with the authoritarians) over Berlusconi or Blair.

Worth reading for the discussions about technology and technological determinism, but take the politics with a dash of salt.
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on 13 January 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Growing up in Belarus and then living in the US, Mr Morozov has had opportunities to view the Internet from 'both sides'. He has seen at first hand both authoritarian attempts at controlling the spread of the Internet and libertarian attempts at maintaining the Internet's growth throughout the world.

This experience has allowed him to develop some useful views. He contrasts attitudes to the Internet basically between 'cyber-utopians' and 'cyber-cons'. The former he defines as those who have:

'...a quasi-religious belief in the power of the Internet to do supernatural things, from eradicating illiteracy in Africa to organizing all of the world's information...Opening up closed societies and flushing them with democracy juice until they shed off their authoritarian skin is just one of the expectations placed on the Internet these days.' (P19)

On the other hand, there are the 'cyber-cons' (an on-line version of neo-conservatives) who still view the world from an essentially Cold War perspective. Thus, they are bound by cold-war metaphors. But, as he points out:

'Breaching a powerful firewall is in no way similar to the breaching of the Berlin Wall or the lifting of passport controls at Checkpoint Charlie...[T]he cyber-wall metaphor falsely suggests that once digital barriers are removed, new and completely different barriers won't spring up in their place' (P44-45)

Between these two extremes, which overlap and inform each other, he analyses the effects of Twitter, Facebook, mobile telephony and the growing belief that all dissidents have to do is set up a Facebook page and the revolution will miraculously occur. He points out, in some detail, just how false these beliefs are and clearly shows that authoritarian regimes are hardly likely to stand back and watch in horror, but are themselves active participants. In fact, organizing demonstrations and the like by mobile phone or Twitter can actually deliver the dissidents into the hands of the authorities.

As stated, China is not going to sit back and simply let lots of people create anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) blogs, web-sites and Facebook pages. They can mobilise their own supporters to create the same Internet facilities to actively support the regime (this is neatly confirmed in 'The Party' by Richard McGregor). In many countries, this has been a growing phenomenon with or without active government support. The number of web-sites and blogs promoting Russian nationalism, for example, provide a significant counter to any 'democratising movement'.

Morozov makes some pointed historical comparisons - in the past, it was believed that the telegraph would bring about World Peace, then it was the aeroplane, next radio (remember the BBC's motto 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation'), then television. As we can see, none of these previous technologies appear to have enhanced the opportunities for greater international understanding, instead often bringing about a 'tribalism' as groups retreat from the huge volume of information into self-reinforcing cliques - an idea also explored by Jodi Dean in her book 'Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies'. Think here of US talk radio and Fox News.

Morozov challenges the notion that all these disaffected people in authoritarian states are hungry for news from the 'outside', from the liberated West. He's right, of course. As he puts it in a chapter entitled 'Orwell's Favourite lolcat' the vast majority of people are far more interested in funny videos on YouTube and pornography.

He creates a further contrast between Orwellian and Huxleyan visions of the future - 'The Orwell-Huxley Sandwich Has Expired' (P75) and suggests that we are far closer to the Huxley end of this spectrum than the Orwellian. Personally, I'm not convinced. As he says himself, the trouble with metaphor is that it is easy to go from saying that something is 'like' something else to saying it is 'exactly like' and so, to my mind, what we have, what is developing, owes much to both Orwell and Huxley - from 'celeb TV' and 'lolcats' to ubiquitous CCTV and monitored mobile phones (or the two together, in the case of the News of the World).

This is a highly detailed examination of the Internet as it has developed over the last twenty years but, to be honest, it does get rather repetitive. The final chapter attempts to put forward some pointers and some suggestions for maintaining the openness of the Internet. But these are rather rushed and not given nearly as much detail as the exposition of the problems currently faced by the technology.

Still, it is very informative, if not particularly optimistic. Given developments since he wrote the book (the US government's continued attacks on WikiLeaks and, by extension, Twitter, the formation of Facebook groups such as the Gaza Youth Movement, where you can simply link to the page to show your (virtual) support) I think we are seeing the slow end of the 'Adam Smithian' free-range Internet and what develops to take it's place will not be so inspirational.
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Evgeny Morozov's `The Net Delusion' is an informative and wide-ranging essay on the growth and increasing power of the internet as an agency of global change, with some less than optimistic conclusions. Taking as a start-point the way in which political-interest websites and blogs have been created by dissidents in an attempt to organise and focus opposition to less democratic regimes such as those in China, Iran and elsewhere, he broadens out his thesis to examine ways in which entrenched political interests have started to use the most successful spin-offs of the new technologies (facebook, twitter) to identify, keep track of and arrest dissenters; and that these developments of internet technologies now enable the exercise of a degree of social control far greater than was previously possible.

The author knows his subject, and utilises plentiful and relevant citations from the enormous academic bibliography listed in the index to support his argument. It is recognised that people the world over seek entertainment and frivolity from the net far more often than they engage in political or philosophical discourse; extrapolating from this data Morozov makes a convincing case that the new technologies may therefore be exploited as a more insidious agency of social control and management. He compares the 1948 totalitarian vision of Orwell's Stalinist surveillance society in `1984' with Huxley's earlier but far more seductive and ultimately more accurate vision of the future in `Brave New World' where the status quo is maintained by giving people what they want and keeping them happy on the farm. The work of Kern and Heinmuller (`Opium for the masses: how foreign media can stabilize authoritarian regimes') demonstrated the narcotizing function of unfettered access to entertainment media, in that youth in the old GDR who were able to see western TV broadcasts were overall found to be more satisfied and comfortable with the regime, whereas those in the eastern part of the state who were unable to view western TV were more politicized and critical of the regime (cited on p65). Control exercised through narcotizing entertainment is cheaper and easier than repression and brutality, so it's obvious which way a dictator determined to retain power and control would choose.

Morozov points out that the reason most western politicians and political commentators believe in the power of the net as a vehicle of emancipation by making information universally available, is because they have not given the matter much thought: "information does not flow in a vacuum, but in a political space already occupied" (p25). Due to its inherent benefits of mass information pooling and storage, the internet is empowering the secret police, censors and propaganda offices of authoritarian regimes to such a degree that the process of democratization is likely to become more difficult, rather than easier. Similarly, if the alternative to paternalistic authoritarianism is weak government (or worse, a free-for-all of ethnic factionalism and chaos) then people are likely to ultimately choose the certainties and clear boundaries defined by authoritarianism.

Overall this is a valuable and thoughtful essay by an informed writer. He often digresses from his central argument but such digressions (such as for example his analysis of the narcissism-promoting social networking sites and the shallowness with which members embrace `causes' so long as they don't have to actually do anything) are invariably enlightening and poignant. Morozov has a good, easy-to-read writing style laced with occasional dark humour, and his 320-page book is well worth reading as an engaging and radical perspective on the way the technology revolution may be leading us as a global society.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I think the most worrying aspect of this book is that it needed to be written at all. Over a course of some 320 pages, in "The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World" Evgeny Morozov reviews all of the bad ways in which the internet (and most particularly social networking and blogging on it) can be used to counter and contain the spread of democracy and personal freedoms while we happily delude ourselves that it is being used to achieve the exact opposite.

Because the internet goes largely unpoliced, at least in the Western world, we tend to regard it as a playground in which we are all free to say and do very much as we wish. It is a forum devoid of censorship and authoritarian intervention. For some bizarre reason, we then equate this "freedom" with democracy. What is more, we assume it to be a good thing; a "liberating" thing. We forget, however, that it is only those of us who already live in free and democratic societies who are at liberty to do this; our freedom does not stem from our use of the internet but rather our freedom to use the internet more or less as we choose and without harmful consequence (to ourselves) stems from the democratic society in which we live. And while access to the internet may give the illusion of freedom to those living in less democratic societies, in reality such access (or at least carelessly free or thoughtless use of it) may well play into the hands of the leaders of authoritarian regimes, providing them with an extremely powerful tool for the suppression of democratic progress, as well as the policing of their own oppressive states.

The underlying message of this book is undoubtedly correct; the fact that the western democratic world does nothing to limit or control the use of the internet makes it a perfect tool for bending to the use of anyone who might benefit from access to an almost limitless outpouring of information about people's thoughts and actions, while at the same time providing them with a tool for the dissemination and promulgation of any amount of misinformation masquerading as the democratising voice of the people. Where it falls down, for me at least, is not what it says so much as the interminable length at which it says it. Many may find Evgeny Morozov's treatise thoroughly researched; it certainly does not want for full and detailed referencing of source material and can be regarded as pretty much authoritative in what it covers. As a general read, however, the leaden prose combined with a propensity to completely do to death all of the arguments presented, makes for a heavyweight read that is anything but easy work. For someone looking for an academic text, the book may be fine; anyone wanting anything lighter should look elsewhere.
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VINE VOICEon 16 March 2012
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A cogent and interestingly argued book from someone who knows what he's talking about and who is well aware of the potentially greater benefits of the internet to dictatorships and repressive regimes and, even, governments in supposedly liberal democracies.
But as the book was published before the Arab Spring really blossommed and before Libya and Egypt were 'liberated' and before, at the time of writing, the Syrian hell has been resolved, you can't help feeling that the world has moved on so much since Morozov wrote it. Plenty of opportunity for a vastly expanded second (and subsequent) edition. But the danger will be that, in an attempt to maintain the 'integrity' of his thesis, the author might try and mould his view of the Arab Spring revolutions in a disingenuous way. On the other hand, if he has the courage to completely reappraise his thesis if necessary, I'd be fascinated to know whether he thinks the internet still has no real value in fomenting revolution...
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I am a web developer. Last year, I was tasked with looking at using Facebook in advertising. I worked out a way that allows any online advert to access the user's Facebook profile as if the user had logged into their account themselves. I used the Facebook API (a set of routines that lets any external web code access Facebook) to surreptitiously login. The only mistake the user has to make to allow me in is to have the `remember me' button on their login screen checked (and which regular Facebook user doesn't?). Once my ad is in your account (about 3-5 seconds on a good broadband connection), I can then access and retransmit all your data, including (depending on what you have on your profile) your name, address, phone numbers, friends, and your uploaded pictures. It isn't even difficult to work out; anyone with a good knowledge of JavaScript (or AS3) and a bit of HTML iframe magic can work it out in a couple of hours.

Why is this allowed to happen? Because Facebook trusts everyone; it assumes I am not evil by default. So does Wikipedia and Twitter. In fact, any social/collaborative web application has to trust me because that is what `social' means in web programming terms.

And that chimes totally with the view of this book; the web is apolitical and trusting, and although that makes it a useful tool to help democracy to take root in authoritarian states, it also makes it very easy for that authoritarian state to reduce personal freedom and spread its own propaganda in return.

If the internet ceased to exist, it would be Al-Qaida that would be worse off. The US Army loses an unsecure communications channel they don't use for frontline operations (and WikiLeaks becomes a thing of the past). Al-Quaida lose the ability to distribute sermons by radical clerics, newsgroups that ferment extremism in countries like the UK, and lose the ability to spread information via the `guerrilla news channel' that the web can become. Operationally, they lose anonymous communication and an easy money transfer system.

The problem is that Western policy makers think the internet can only be a good thing for democracy (because it spreads information freely, and free = freedom = democracy, right?). This is the Net Delusion.

Although I note other reviewers find this dark view of the web hard to swallow, as a web developer I find again and again practical experience that tells me that the social web is built on a democratic world view that assumes peer trust as the default; all those aging hippies are alive and well in Silicon Valley. Normally cool, but as soon as a totalitarian government with time on their hands wants to find you the web user, the web gives them all the tools to identify you and your friends and come knocking to spread their own version of free love.

And no, before you ask, I didn't use the Facebook hack in the end; I decided I am not that evil. But then again, I'm not North Korea.

And if that doesn't pique your interest in this book, nothing will!

***Update Feb 2012***
Facebook have fixed my security exploit some time ago, so you can stop searching for it!
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The opening of any book is the most important line it has. If you can't get past that, and aren't drawn in by it, you aren't going to get anywhere. As an early Net Adopter but not a techie, the cynicism of the potential of the Net in these pages is a disappointing interpretation of human endeavour. Certainly, governments and corporations, will - as they always have - try to shape and control our lives and emotions to make us nothing more than Happy Worker-Consumers. Twas always ever thus. No matter how powerful and devious these instruments are, Human Beings always strive against this control. We only need win once.

To an extent this book reflects the sense in the modern media, especially the media, that The Net Is Full Of Murderers, Weirds, And Threats. All The Daily Hate has to say is "He was an avid Internet User", and instead of being someone who uses technology to connect to others, he's a demonised, predatory scumbag. Whilst they are hooked up to their Internet Nipple themselves, it's not them being weird, it's Everyone Else.

The central premise is that the Net is neutral, and this can be used for both moral, and oppressive purposes. Overall though, the way of thinking that most peoples default setting is "Don't Be Evil" is correct. Sure, there are undoubtedly millions of people the world over who see the Net as a playground to exploit and control others and steal their data. CNN, for a start. ID criminals. If it wasn't for the Net, they'd be doing the same thing using different means anyway. Don't fool yourself. The core argument here is "Gun's Don't Kill People, Rappers Do." The other core idea to remember is You Cannot Uninvent The Nuclear Bomb. Once progress has begun, it is difficult to stop it. The challenge then is changing the world, not refuting or reversing it - and this books isn't clear on a solution or way forward. Without an alternative to the current position, though, all this talk is practically meaningless. Where do we go from here? Human beings are wise and clever. There are billions of them. Do not be disheartened.
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on 17 November 2011
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I tried. I really, really did. For almost a year The Net Delusion sat on my reading pile. In my magazine stand. By my bed. I would pick it up every week or so, and push on a few more pages, and realise I was lost, and start over. Then the best part of fifty pages in, I was lost again, or worn out, or just plain bored. And beneath the book, the pile of unread texts grew larger and more appealing. I'm sorry it didn't work out, book, but it's not me, it's you.

That The Net Delusion is reactionary literature is betrayed by its snowclone title as much as its blurb, "The X Delusion" breaking free from the cottage industry of astonished Dawkins rebuttals and into the more general field of disgruntled responses. Reactive needn't be bad, if it's applied at a thematic level, but The Net Delusion is reactive at the paragraph level. At each step, the book picks up and examines and rejects an idea, or a distortion of it, often with sarcasm or hyperbole. Have you ever read one of those internet arguments that degenerates into a page full of quote, response, quote, response, with no sign of a theme or a direction? The Net Delusion is like one side of that, without quotes. It's like listening to someone having a huffing argument into a phone, without being privy to the rest of the conversation. It's frustrating and formless.

Maybe one day I'll dust this off, flip through the index, and find some gem of an idea that provokes a great train of thought, but I'm not going to mine through this coarse ore to find those jewels any longer. There's far more thought provoking, and far more accessible, literature to be had.
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on 14 December 2012
Dunks a much needed, well-reasoned, and well-researched bucket of cold-water over "Internet-centrists" and "cyber-utopians" (cyber-utopianism is a "naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication"), and assembles together an excellent though somewhat depressing array of evidence to dismantle this edifice of technology-centrists.

The Internet has revolutionized communications. It has certainly disintermediated and caused immense pain to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers as well as traditional media outlets and the newspaper business. But when people make a leap of logic and start assuming that the Internet has, can, should, and will engender socio-political revolutions in totalitarian, closed, dictatorial regimes, you have to start thinking that maybe there has been an ingestion of Kool Aid, gallons of it.
While the basic thrust of the book is to argue, strongly, against making technology, and especially the Internet and social media, the main focus of an argument in favor of sociological and political change in societies, the argument itself is mutli-faceted.

This book can be clubbed together with other, similar-themed books as "The Shallows", by Nicholas Carr - that takes a fascinating look at how we learn and how the Internet short-circuits that learning process, "The Filter Bubble", by Eli Pariser - that is closer in theme to this book as it covers how the Internet may actually hamper our ability to think critically, and "Alone Together", by Sherry Turkle - that has a more sociological bent and how the individual becomes more alone even as he harbors the illusion of being more connected, that have called for a closer and more evidence-backed assessment of the impact of technology on both the individual and society.

This book was written before the surreptitious and never fully acknowledged Internet censorship imposed by the Government of India in 2012 on several prominent journalists and people active on the Internet - almost all, coincidentally, critical of the ruling party, using the riots in the northeastern state of Assam as a pretext to test the waters of cyber-censorship. It would be interesting to read the author's take on the issue, from both a distant observer's as well as academic's perspective.

The rush to proclaim Twitter, specifically, and all of social media in general, as the newest and infallible tools of freedom started with the Iranian protests in June 2009, with the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan declaring that "The Revolution Will Be Twittered". This despite the fact that less than 20,000 Twitter accounts were "registered in Iran (0.027 percent of the population) on the eve of the 2009 elections", according to "[A]nalysis by Sysomos, a social media analysis company". Worse, "[S]peaking in early 2010, Moeed Ahmad, director of new media for Al-Jazeera, stated that fact-checking by his channel during the protests could confirm only sixty active Twitter accounts in Tehran, a number that fell to six once the Iranian authorities cracked down on online communications."

Similar pronouncements of cyber-utopianism have gushed with equal juvenile abandon, like from "Mitch Kapor, one of the founding fathers of cyber-utopianism", who quoted Thomas Jefferson in his paean to cyberspace as something "founded on the primacy of individual liberty". "But Kapor hasn't read his Jefferson closely enough, for the latter was well aware of the antidemocratic spirit of many civil associations, writing that "the mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.""

Another member of this distinguished club, actually "one of the intellectual fathers of cyber-utopianism", would be Nicholas Negroponte, who "predicted in 1995 that "[on the Internet] there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox"?" The evidence for such sweeping claims is thin. In fact, quite the opposite may have happened. One may remember Negroponte from his other, more dangerously naïve and ill-thought One-Laptop-Per-Child project, rammed down the throats of equally clueless governments and agencies looking for a quick, big-bang solution to what are fundamentally intractable and immensely complex problems.

Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, propounded a "dictator's dilemma", when she said, on "a 2009 visit to Shanghai ... that "the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes" - implying that impeding political speech would also impede commercial speech - the two were inextricably tied. Very noble. Even her boss, Barrack Obama, President of the United States, echoed these views, when, "On a 2009 visit to Shanghai" he said, "the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes..."

Except that his message changed, considerably, when delivered to a domestic audience. "[W]hen he spoke to the graduates of Hampton University in Virginia less than six months later, Obama communicated almost a completely different message, complaining about "a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank all that high on the truth meter.... With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations ... information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment."

Even when it comes to practical application of the principles of free information propounded by Western democracies like the United States, there is a thin line, if at that, that separates their actions from the actions of repressive regimes. The efficacy of moral posturing is much diluted consequently.

"Twitter has been accused of silencing online tribute to the 2008 Gaza War. Apple has been bashed for blocking Dalai Lama-related iPhone apps from its App Store for China (an application related to Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the Uighur minority, was banned as well). Google, which owns Orkut, a social network that is surprisingly popular in India, has been accused of being too zealous in removing potentially controversial content that may be interpreted as calling for religious and ethnic violence against both Hindus and Muslims. Moreover, a 2009 study found that Microsoft has been censoring what users in the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Algeria, and Jordan could find through its Bing search engine much more heavily than the governments of those countries."

The argument in favor of cyber-regulation, "rapidly gaining traction among Western policymakers", is predicated on the belief that "cyberspace may lead to lawlessness in the real world" unless it is regulated. But it doesn't stop there. It may send a somewhat cyber-chill down your spine when you read that "In "Sovereignty in Cyberspace," a 2010 article published in Air Force Law Review, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Franzese, who is with the U.S. Strategic Command, proposed that "[American] users wanting to access the Internet globally could be required to use a biometric scanner before continuing.""

On the other hand, there is the more reasonable, and indeed very rational argument when "Parental associations want to make it easier to track online pedophile activities and protect their children." You really cannot argue with that.

"Hollywood, music studios, and publishing companies are pushing for better ways to track and delete unauthorized exchange of copyright-protected content."

"Banks want stricter identity controls to minimize online fraud."

Most of these arguments are reasonable ones. But here is the rub - what works for the goose works just as well for the gander (assuming I have got my phrase right). The gander here is of a decidedly darker shade.

"Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, funded in part by the Chinese government, have managed to build surveillance software that can automatically annotate and comment on what it sees, generating text files that can later be searched by humans"

Even the steps adopted by social activists to ensure anonymity, like using disposable SIM cards, or cell phones without identifiers, are also what terrorists copy - as countries that have suffered terrorism, like India, found out.

"Or consider Recognizr, the cutting-edge smartphone application developed by two Swedish software firms that allows anyone to point their mobile phone at a stranger and immediately query the Internet about what is known about this person"

But of course it could not be put to bad use by bad regimes, right? Why? Because isn't technology "neutral"? And therefore, goes the argument, it is nobody's business to think about the impact of technology on societies. A magic phrase like "neutrality" absolves the creators of these technologies of all responsibility of its impact.

"That we do not know how exactly knives will be used in the hands of young people in every particular situation is not a strong enough reason to allow them; knowing how they can be misused, on the other hand, even if the chance of misuse is small, provides us with enough information to craft a restricting policy."

The spectre of shrill, wide-eyed advocates rushing to hail the omnipotent transformative power of a new technology is an old one. It has happened before. It has happened often.

With the railways, "which Karl Marx believed would dissolve India's caste system", with television, and with the telegraph, when ""An 1858 editorial in New Englander proclaimed: "The telegraph binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth.... It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth."" That is just so touchingly innocent. Just three decades later, the misty-eyed adulation of the telegraph had given way to some decidedly morose hand-wringing.

"In 1889, the Spectator, one of the empire's finest publications, chided the telegraph for causing "a vast diffusion of what is called `news,' the recording of every event, and especially of every crime, everywhere without perceptible interval of time. The constant diffusion of statements in snippets ... must in the end, one would think, deteriorate the intelligence of all to whom the telegraph appeal.""

And while we are on this point, let us step back further in time, to the early years of the nineteenth century, when "newspapers, magazines, and coffee houses rapidly emerged as influential cultural institutions that gave rise to a broad and vocal public opinion." This led to the Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, to lament that "[N]ot a single one of those who belong to the public has an essential engagement in anything," ... As far as he was concerned, all the chatter produced in coffee houses only led to the "abolition of the passionate distinction between remaining silent and speaking." And silence for Kierkegaard was important, for "only the person who is essentially capable of remaining silent is capable of speaking essentially.""

""What Kierkegaard envisaged as a consequence of the press's irresponsible and uncommitted coverage is now fully realized on the World Wide Web," writes Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley."

Let us now return to the parade of technologies that were meant to transform societies.

"Like radio before it, television was expected to radically transform the politics of the time. In 1932 Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the late president and then governor-general of the Philippines, predicted that TV would "stir the nation to a lively interest in those who are directing its policies and in the policies themselves," which would result in a "more intelligent, more concerted action from an electorate;"

I will not even comment on the above hope that the television would somehow result in more "intelligent" anything from the electorate.
"The first automobiles were heralded as technologies that could make cities cleaner by liberating them of horse manure."
There's a good amount of horse manure in that sentiment, if nothing else.

So why should the Internet be any different? Hordes of people, all eager to establish their credentials as the techno-intellectual seers of their age, rush forward with more and more fantastical claims about the technology that they can lay claim to being involved with, even if peripherally so.

Perhaps the most pernicious myths about the Internet are that repressive regimes are uniformly clueless and even powerless in the face of the onslaught of the mighty Internet. The evidence is decidedly, err, contrarian, shall we say?
"As the Chinese authorities began worrying about the growing unrest in Xinjiang in 2009, they simply turned off all Internet communications for ten months;"
...
"In 2009 the Nigerian government sought to enlist more than seven hundred Nigerians abroad and at home and create a so-called Anti-Bloggers Fund intended to raise a new generation of pro-government bloggers
Their compensation was cybercafé vouchers and blogging allowances."
...
"Egypt is not far behind. Noticing that Facebook had been used to publicize antigovernment protests in 2008, Egyptian authoritarians decided to embrace the site as well--it was too popular to be banned. As Gamal Mubarak, the son of Hosni Mubarak and his likely successor, began giving online interviews, more than fifty Facebook groups, all of them supposedly of the grassroots variety, sprang up online to nominate him for the presidency."
...
"In 2010 Iran's hard-liners launched their own social networking site, Valayatmadaran...
...
Iran has been training a new generation of religious bloggers since 2006, when the Bureau for the Development of Religious Web Logs was set up at Qom, the center of religious scholarship in the country."
...

"In 2009 millions of customers of the state-controlled China Mobile, who perhaps were not feeling patriotic enough on the country's National Day, woke up to discover that the company replaced their usual ringback tone with a patriotic tune sang by the popular actor Jackie Chan and a female actress."

Had enough?

So why do allegedly intelligent people continue to insist that the Internet will free, open up, and emancipate repressed, closed societies?

Two words - "intellectual recycling"

Because "fax machines" brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, so will the Internet bring down oppressive regimes. Thus goes the argument.

""To win the cyber-war, look to the Cold War," writes Mike McConnell, America's former intelligence chief. "[The fight for Internet freedom] is a lot like the problem we had during the Cold War," concurs Ted Kaufman, a Democratic senator from Delaware."

These are "selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system."
Complicated explanations are just that - complicated. People want one-line explanations. "Fax machines" are easier to remember than "structural and socio-economic".

When people compare the Berlin Wall with the Internet Firewall, it is useful as a metaphor. It is not a very comparable analogy to begin with, and as the analogy gathers momentum and sticks in the public's mind, it is easy to forget that "All metaphors come with costs, for the only way in which they can help us grasp a complex issue is by downplaying some other, seemingly less important, aspects of that issue."
For instance, people forget that "Physical walls are cheaper to destroy than to build; their digital equivalents work the other way around." And do not forget that DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, for instance, can be carried with ease not only by governments but also cyber-criminals.

Social media sites like Facebook, that social activists have to use simply because everyone else is also there, also make it the job of repressive regimes easier in tracking dissidents. An email address can be used to link and follow activists across such social media sites. Hacking one activist's social media account can expose several other activists too. "In the past, the KGB resorted to torture to learn of connections between activists; today, they simply need to get on Facebook."

Ominously enough, "In some cases, the state does not need to become directly involved at all. Tech-savvy groups of individuals loyal to a particular cause or national government will harness their networks to censor their opponents".

"The most famous of such networks is a mysterious online organization that calls itself Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF). This pro-Israel advocacy group made headlines by compiling lists of anti-Israeli Facebook groups, infiltrating them to become their administrators, and ultimately disabling them. One of its most remarkable accomplishments was deleting nearly 110,000 members from a 118,000-strong Arabic-language group sympathetic to Hezbollah."

The Internet, instead of serving as a tool for organizing and galvanizing opposition to repressive regimes, can actually work much like West German television broadcasts did for East Germans - it "allowed East Germans to vicariously escape life under communism at least for a couple of hours each night, making their lives more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable.... West German television exposure resulted in a net increase in regime support." Similarly, "online entertainment--especially spiced up with pornography--can serve as a great distraction from politics."

Even this "better integration of academics and intellectuals from authoritarian states into a global intellectual sphere" comes with a significant cost - "at the expense of severing their ties to local communities. ...
Not surprisingly, most of them are better informed about what's going on in Greenwich Village than in their own town hall."

Between two similar but also different portraits of "diffusion of power and control under democracy, communism, and fascism", one being George Orwell's "1984", and the other being Aldous Huxley's "A Brave New World", much has come true that was described in both books, though even there, "Both Huxley's and Orwell's books have been pigeonholed to serve a particular political purpose: one to attack the foundations of modern capitalism, the other the basis of modern authoritarianism. ... To assume that all political regimes can be mapped somewhere on an Orwell-Huxley spectrum is an open invitation to simplification[.]"

The author writes that simply becoming part of a group, like an online group, that, for instance, we simply have to click "Like" to become a part of, makes us feel that we have done our bit in effecting change, without actually having to do anything. "Take a popular Facebook cause, Saving the Children of Africa. At first sight, it does look impressive, with over 1.7 million members, until you discover that they have raised about $12,000 (less than one-hundredth of a penny per person)."

Real change requires real people willing to suffer real pain - people "brave and ready to die or go to prison if the circumstances so require. ...Such people may not be terrifically successful in undermining the power of the regime, but they might (one thinks of Gandhi) be setting an important moral example that could nudge the rest of their fellow citizens."

And finally, lest we believe that "Tweets" will "dissolve all of our national, cultural, and religious differences", be aware that "they may actually accentuate them."

"For instance, it's almost certain that a Russian white supremacist group that calls itself the Northern Brotherhood would have never existed in the pre-Internet era. It has managed to set up an online game in which participants--many of them leading a comfortable middle-class existence--are asked to videotape their violent attacks on migrant guest workers, share them on YouTube, and compete for cash awards.
...
Crime gangs in Mexico have also become big fans of the Internet. Not only do they use YouTube to disseminate violent videos and promote a climate of fear, but they are also reportedly going through social networking sites hunting for personal details of people to kidnap. It doesn't help that the offspring of Mexico's upper classes are all interconnected on Facebook."

While people will continue to argue that the Internet is really an enabler of social change, going further to make the case that social media will engender true revolution, just as fax machines had caused the Berlin Wall to fall. Since the Internet continues to change, to evolve, it is certainly possible that this somewhat utopian potential of the Internet will be realized someday. However, the evidence at hand, as argued forth in this book, suggests that that day has not quite arrived, nor are there any green shoots to suggest that that premise is going to be met anytime soon. It is tempting to dismiss this book as the diatribe of a technophobe, but that is to simply shoot the messenger, while conveniently ignoring the message. While technological nihilism is certainly not being argued for, a balanced assessment of the impact of technology, and the Internet in particular, is long overdue.

To conclude with a couple of points, firstly, be aware that the message of this book is likely to be depressing for many, including people like me who somehow believed, till recently, in the omnipotence of the Internet in effecting meaningful, social change. There are no easy solutions, and indeed, even the last chapter, "The Wicked Fix", doesn't really provide any easy quick-fixes. It leaves us with more, open, unanswered questions, than any answers. Whether it is a drawback of the book or an simple, honest acknowledgment that the questions posed by the Internet simply do not have any obvious or easy solutions is upto the reader to infer.

The second quibble with the book is that there is some amount of repetition - when criticizing Internet-centrism, for instance, the critique appears in several places in the book, and reads repetitive.

Overall, the organization of the book is excellent, but for my money I would have preferred if some of the historical context, that appears in the latter half of the book, had actually appeared earlier in the book. But this is a matter of personal opinion to some extent.

And oh yes, how could I forget the caustic titles of chapters and sections? That alone could be well worth the price of admission! A sample:
"The Unimaginable Consequences of an Imagined Revolution"
"Nostalgia's Lethal Metaphors"
"Hold On to Your Data Grenade, Comrade!"
"Online Discontents and Their Content Intellectuals"
"The Kremlin Likes Blogs and So Should You"
"Darning Mao's Socks, One SMS at a Time"
"On Mobile Phones That Limit Your Mobility"
"Putting the Nyet in Networks"
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