Feb 20, 2010
Thinking critically about the ideal of a techno-utopia

Technology can compromise resolve. East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country. The fact that Dresden—where the 1989 protests started—lies too far and too low to have received Western broadcasts may partly explain the rebellious spirit of the city's inhabitants. While we fret about the Internet's contribution to degrading the civic engagement of American kids, all teenagers in China or Iran are presumed to be committed citizens who use the Web to acquaint themselves with human rights violations committed by their governments. For the vast majority of Internet users, increased access to information is not always liberating. With their endless supply of entertainment, Twitter and Facebook might make political mobilization harder, not easier.

Technology empowers all sides equally. We cling to the view that all non-state power in authoritarian countries is good, while state power is evil and always leads to suppression. Not all opponents of the Russian or Chinese or even Egyptian state fit the neoliberal pattern. Nationalism, extremism and religious fanaticism abound. Facebook and Twitter empower all groups—not just the pro-Western groups that we like.

Technology drives decentralization; demonstration requires centralization. Thanks to the decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran's Green Movement couldn't collect itself on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. It simply drowned in its own tweets.

Technology increases noise and misinformation. We assume the Internet makes it easy for citizens to see who else is opposing a regime and then act collectively based on that shared knowledge. In the age of the Spinternet, cheap online propaganda can easily be bought with the help of pro-government bloggers. Add to that the growing surveillance capacity of modern authoritarian states—greatly boosted by information collected through social media.

Technology shines a harsh light. Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of "open government"; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors.

Paraphrasing Evgeny Morozov

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