Not, on the face of things, a book about organisational change, HR or learning, I hear you murmur. True, I’d murmur back, but a book you might gain a lot from reading nonetheless. While Morozov’s primary focus in The Net Delusion may be on the socio-political impact of the Internet, and on repeatedly, provocatively and effectively countering the prevailing view of it as a force for democratisation, openness, dissemination (and quite possibly a cure for a real gallimaufry of our ills), in the context of this blog and the professional focus of its audience the book has a useful role to play as both eye-opener and reality check. Webs may not be inherently wicked, but they’re not simple either: the clue, as they say, is in the name.
That we live in a period when the Net in general – and social media in particular – occupy a large part of our attention is not in doubt. The attention is both literal – how many hours a week do you spend looking at a web browser, your email, a social networking site, or the screen of your mobile/iPad/etc? – and metaphorical. A significant percentage of non-Net based media – newspapers, magazine, radio and TV – now focuses on talking about the Net and social media. A further percentage uses YouTube, Twitter and other online sources as its own source material: at least in some countries (and that is a very important caveat), ‘citizen journalism’ is being actively co-opted by professional journalism to augment or even feed its own output.
If that raises a shrugged shoulder, contemplate for a moment that the implication of the last couple of sentences is that ‘communications’ increasingly means something different to the meaning it had even 10 years ago. And it’s not just the nature of communications that are changing, but the environment in which they are broadcast and received. There are implications for most people whose roles are primarily concerned with communication. Journalism, a skill (and, if having a professional body and qualifications makes it one, a profession) that depends on research, validation and analysis, is being increasingly replaced by reporting – an activity that doesn’t imply the reporter has any ‘skills’ at all. That doesn’t just change the nature of journalism, but the nature of the news too. The situation is invariably more complex than “Here’s a clip from YouTube showing that latest fighting in …”.
Perhaps one way to see the book is as a corrective. Morozov points out that Net technology – and the traceability of online activity and smart phones – is just as useful to criminals, terrorists and authoritarian regimes as it is to pro-democracy advocates. Furthermore, this usefulness has not been lost on most of the ‘less desirable’ groups. South American can trace the family of police and legal officials on Facebook and issue threats; the Iranian government can track down tweeters (and most of those tweeting about ‘#iran’ in the 2009 ‘Twitter Revolution’ were not in Iran. China happily pays bloggers to blog on its behalf, including arguing with critics internally. And there’s more to censorship than blocking access: providing popular distractions is just as effective – Russia (unlike China or Saudia Arabia, for example) censors almost nothing on the Net.
Nor are these the only correctives on offer. As Westerners – and particularly as Westerners that have embraced every bleeping, beeping, interactive doodad to come our way – its perhaps too easy to swallow the ‘technology will save us from everything’ salespersonship that can make us forget that people in countries we see as dangerous, tormented or oppressed are as interested in light entertainment, escapism, and being protected from terrorists, scamsters and paedophiles as we are. (Living in a brutal dictatorship doesn’t mean you don’t want the worst material removed to protect your children from seeing it, although it might mean you’re not online in the first place – or that various activities gain a dark appeal as a means of black market income.) As Morozov points out:
The most popular Internet searches on Russian search engines are not for “what is democracy?” or “how to protect human rights?” but “what is love?” and “how to lose weight?”.
Nor is this new: he shows us that East Germans who could receive West German tv (most of the country) overwhelmingly chose the contemporary equivalents of Crossroads or Emmerdale over the equivalents of Question Time or Panorama.
Morozov also re-runs the comparison between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and seems to agree with JG Ballard that Huxley’s vision of a future where advertising, sex and entertainment are far better ways of keeping the lid on situations than surveillance and oppression is closer to the future that is currently unfolding. The wonder – or is it the problem? – of the Internet is that provides ample opportunities for both. (Technology also offers scope for the mass automation of ‘monitoring’ activities just as much as it does to production lines: more people – and more of their activities, as more of them are online – can be monitoring more thoroughly, and more quickly at lower cost and by far fewer people. Anyone with a paranoid disposition and little Net savvy might not want to read Morozov last thing at night: sweet dreams might not follow.)
The role of the Net as a call to arms isn’t unequivocally proven either, according to Morozov. We can click a button to join a Facebook group in an instant, but the likelihood of donation or action is very slim – clicking the button is too easy, but satisfies many of us that we have ‘done something’: as Morozov points out, what ‘most of us’ have thereby done is display our caring credentials to our online ‘friends’. Elsewhere, of course, crops continue to fail, bullets continue to fly, rivers still run dry. But we were online and that’s a good thing, right?
If there’s an abiding, single lesson in the book it is probably something like ‘every gift horse should be taken straight to the dental surgery and subjected to rigorous examination’. Generally speaking, good advice in almost any context. The Net remains sufficiently young that we have yet to fully understand the impact that it will have: indeed, its impact is still increasingly being made, let along felt. An impact as substantial as it would appear to be will also have lasting ripples: our assessment of the impact will need to be on-going and dynamic. The examples Morozov quotes of the hopes that were invested in earlier new technologies show that a wish for magical cure-alls is a trope of human nature.
Here, for example, is an extract from a section that reviews early responses to the rise of the aviation industry:
According to [Joseph] Corn, in the 1920s and much of the 1930s most people “expected the airplane to foster democracy, equality and freedom, to improve public taste and spread culture, to purge the world of war and violence; and even to give rise to a new kind of human being.” One observer at the time, apparently oblivious to the economic forces of global capitalism, mused that airplanes opened up “the realm of absolute liberty; no tracks, no franchise, no need of thousands of employees to add to the cost,” while in 1915 the editor of Flying magazine – the Wired of its day – enthusiastically proclaimed that the First World War had to be “the last great war in history” because “ in the less than another decade,” the airplane would have eliminated the factors responsible for wars and ushered in a “new period in human relations” …
As Morozov then comments: “apparently, Adolf Hitler was not a subscriber to Flying”. (The residents of Manhattan, Ibiza and Hounslow would all have points to offer in response, one imagines.)
Ultimately, Net technologies are vehicles – and vehicles for which no driving licence and little skill are required. These ‘vehicles’ can be driven by scattered national diasporas, religious advocates, unionists, propagandists, Holocaust deniers, historians, archivists and the whole range of humanity. The technology doesn’t distinguish saints from sinners – that judgment remains subjective. We can all find things we agree with online, even if we don’t necessarily investigate any more fully than we ponder the consequences of us agreeing with them or their ability to publish their material. To paraphrase an old tech cliché, it’s a case of ‘human behaviour in, human behaviour out’.
Morozov writes wittily (his sub-headings – “Kandinsky and Vonnegut Are Now Friends!”, “Darning Mao’s Socks, One SMS at a Time” – are little masterpieces of grabbing attention), rather repetitively – many of his points are made a few times too often, as if he is overly (and unnecessarily) anxious his readers didn’t get the first couple of times, and sometimes contradictorily – although the contradictory nature of his subject matter is actually an important point in its own right.
The essential problem is that we haven’t yet fully understood the kind of human behaviour that the Net will bring or encourage, or the longer term consequences of its technologies. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s written for an imperfect world populated by imperfect people. Like other books that it brought to mind – Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget (read our review) and Ellen Ullman’s much earlier but very valuable Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents – some readers may gain little more than “Stop! It’s not that simple!” from reading it, but that could be a very powerful lesson, and an instructive one.