Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Truths about Web revolutions

So, Zuckerberg’s puppy can have its own Facebook page but Chinese dissidents using pseudonyms are out of luck?” A few days ago, this was the Twitter status of writer Evgeny Morozov, who was referring to Facebook’s decision to ban a Chinese activist from opening an account using a pseudonym that has otherwise been used to publish articles in major publications. Belarus-born Morozov, currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the best man to cast aspersions at social networking sites’ claims of being a catalyst for modern-day uprisings. His book, The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate The World, is a massive takedown of the recent Twitter and Facebook revolutions. Here’s the opening salvo: “Today’s authoritarianism is of the hedonism and consumerism-friendly variety, with Steve Jobs and Ashton Kutcher commanding far more respect than Mao or Che.” Just when you start dismissing it as polemic on crack, Morozov has some chilling facts to back him. Only 0.027 per cent of Iranians were registered on Twitter on the eve of the controversial 2009 elections and Al-Jazeera said at one point there were only 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran. Even the usually subdued The Economist chose a jingoistic headline when Iran was a simmering cauldron: “Twitter-1 CNN-0”.

To Morozov’s credit, he never goes over the top with his denunciations of “slacktivism”, the tendency to tweet and Facebook about social causes without ever going to the place where it’s happening. Some of the chapter titles take the most delicious stabs at the digital equivalent of burning bras and talking politics in cafes: “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”, “Why Kierkegaard hates slacktivism”, “Hugo Chavez would like to welcome you to the spinternet”, and “Orwell’s favourite lolcat”.

Morozov says Twitter and Facebook might give impetus to a fledgling movement but then it soon fizzles out because there is no one to take up the mantle to get people together in the real world. It would be foolhardy to proclaim the recent revolution in Egypt as victory for Twitter. Growing unemployment numbers and a stagnant economy is all it took for the Egyptians to congregate at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Thusly, cometh the hour, cometh the revolution.

The fact that Morozov is so bearish about the Internet is because he can see through its pretensions: “While many praised Twitter’s role in publicising and promoting political demonstrations in Iran, the death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009, quickly overtook the protests as the site’s most popular topic.” So, as you can see, this butterfly is yet to emerge from the chrysalis.

If Twitter is supposed to be digital samizdat for the dissidents, it can be used as propaganda by authoritarian regimes too. After opening his Twitter account, Venzuela’s president Hugo Chavez declared the site his “secret weapon” and that Internet can be used for “ideological battle as well”. All tweets by the official ID of North Korean regime are in Korean. And not so long ago, 50 Facebook groups sprang up online to support the presidency bid of Gamal Mubarak, son of Hosni Mubarak (until recently the President of Egypt). Hell, even China and Ajerbaijan quell revolutions in their own ingenuous ways.

Russia adopts a different tack: The Tits Show, the weekly show hosted by, the country’s foray into Internet television supported by Kremlin’s ideologues, shows a “horny and slightly overweight young man travel around Moscow nightclubs in search of perfect breasts…”, the idea being that any generation that is seduced by technology and sleaze will never have time to take part in a protest.

In a chapter titled “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”, Morozov lends gold standard to this aphorism: “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Earlier the Big Brother had to literally oversee what everyone is up to but post-Internet, all it takes is to induce software called keylogger into anyone’s computer and the unwitting person is inching towards his proverbial grave with every following keystroke. Morozov makes a grave prognostication in this regard: “As long as most virtual activities are tied to physical infrastructure — keyboards, microphones, screens — no advances in encryption technology could eliminate all the risks and vulnerabilities.”

Morozov is mostly on the money in The Net Delusion but on a few occasions he tends to jump the shark. He proposes a rap on the knuckles of whoever believes that climate change is a hoax; he’s hardly scathing about WikiLeaks for all the irrevocable damage it’s inflicting on diplomacy; resorts to platitudes like “a knife can be used to kill somebody, but it can also be used to carve wood”; an entire chapter is devoted to drawing parallels between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2009 revolution in Iran, which is a no-brainer judging by the fact that the former has had an indelible impact on history.

The book loses its steam at the end when he blathers on cyber-utopia and “technological fixes”— “make the world’s knowledge available to everyone; take photos of all streets in the world”— without making any headway. Then again, there’s so much to take home from Morozov’s brave and, more important, successful attempt to clean the Augean stables. Despite the Sisyphean task at hand, Morozov ensures that reading the book is a pleasure and never a chore thanks to his writing that throbs like a Led Zeppelin song.

Evgeny Morozov,
Allen Lane,
408 pages; Rs 550


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