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Morozov's excellent essay demonstrates the net is not all good news
on 26 February 2012
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.