The likes of Facebook, Twitter, and other self-publishing platforms have been hailed as the 21st century’s foremost tools of freedom and self-expression – whether used to corral voters in fractious elections, air personal grievances of would-be prime ministers, or to ‘stick it to the man’ by successfully petitioning for the likes of Rage Against The Machine to make it to Christmas No. 1 in the UK ahead of some manufactured pop group. But what if this technology is doing more harm than good? What if it’s actually stifling our freedom?

This is the argument that Belarusian-born, U.S.-based writer, researcher and Transitions’ former director of new media Evgeny Morozov makes in The Net Delusion. He believes that the social and political potential of the Internet has been misrepresented, citing ignorance and complacency on the part of Western governments and a misguided sense in the everyday user that new media has the power to cure all the world’s ills with a simple click.

Unlike a growing strand of digital thinkers, Morozov refuses to accept that pressing concerns about modern society and politics can be framed in terms of the Internet and argues that “cyber-utopianism” could in fact be the undoing of the information age.

Among other points, Morozov believes that the West’s fascination with multimedia has provoked authoritarian regimes to crack down on political activity by giving them the ability to infiltrate the social networks of protest groups and cites the media’s obsession with restrictions on internet use in China as pandering to Washington’s misguided ‘freedom agenda’.

The Guardian carries more on Morozov’s views in its review of the book:

Thanks to the WikiLeaks affair, freedom of information is no longer such a certain good in political rhetoric, and the web is losing its utopian lustre. We have seen one of Morozov’s greatest concerns – that online political acts involve no commitment or risk, and are largely mediated by western corporations – addressed, with the emergence of a decentralised global protest movement prepared to take overtly political online actions and even, in a couple of cases at least, to make their identities known and face imprisonment for their beliefs.

The internet, Morozov argues, is breeding a generation not of activists but of “slacktivists”, who think that clicking on a Facebook petition counts as a political act (the 1.7 million members of the “Save the Children of Africa” group have, for example, spent several years raising the princely sum of $12,000).

As highlighted in our coverage of the recent elections in Belarus, Morozov saves most of his ire for the apathy of his homeland, where “no angry tweets or text messages, no matter how eloquent, have been able to rekindle the democratic spirit of the masses, who, to a large extent, have drowned in a bottomless reservoir of spin and hedonism, created by a government that has read its Huxley.”

Andrew Fenwick

Andrew Fenwick is multimedia editor at Transitions Online. Email: andrew.fenwick@tol.org

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