Our Movement and the Internet: Two Reviews
Also posted on Liberal Conspiracy here: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/07/16/our-movement-and-the-internet-two-book-reviews/
Carr, Nicholas The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (2010) Atlantic Books London
Morozov, Evgeny The Net Delusion: How Not to Change the World (2011) Allen Lane
One story emerging from the Murdoch debacle concerns the importance of an online campaign in bringing down The News of the World. The campaign, detailed here, is of course one of many important recent political mobilizations associated with the internet, a trend seen everywhere from Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” to the current uprisings in the Middle East. As the internet will only grow in importance over coming years, careful assessment is clearly necessary. Helpfully, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World by Evgeny Morozov, and The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr promise to shine some light.
The first book, as the title suggests, takes issue with the emphasis on the internet as a tool of social change. Carr’s book, on the other hand, focuses more on the medium in a more general sense, and discusses how it affects who we are.
The Net Delusion brings forward a number of critiques, and is concerned with both over-emphasis of the web as a tool for social change and ignorance about the darker side of internet use. The Western faith in the internet as a tool of social change, he argues, comes from the cartoonish belief that the spread of ideas, independent from the contradictions of the Soviet Union, ended the Cold War. This means that in Iran for example, where only 60 active Twitter accounts during the 2009 upheaval could be confirmed (compared to 20 000 registered accounts in Iran as a whole) the same narrative is swiftly re-heated and erroneously trotted out. As well as being a distraction, he argues, Western emphasis provokes internet crackdowns by the governments in question.
With this established, Morozov work through his other critiques in a rather unstructured way and, frankly, it’s open season on sacred cows.
For instance, despite our perception of authoritarian governments as Orwellian structures of joyless terror, incompetent in technical matters, Morozov describes the creative ways in which the internet is used to ensnare. So, we are told about addictive, narcotizing online entertainment from the Kremlin and Chinese internet games, alongside the states newly found opportunities for spying and monitoring it’s population, provided partly by social networking.
Morozov is also unconvinced about the internet’s capacity to enforce change, arguing that the values of online campaigning – convenience, speed, networking – may actually work against the necessary values of a successful campaign, i.e. long term planning, solidarity and willingness to sacrifice. The role of the internet in organizing reactionary movements – who apparently also blog – is discussed, as is the importance of the internet for organized crime.
By contrast, ‘The Shallows” presents a rather coherent narrative: increased use of the internet, Carr writes, makes us inattentive, scattered and shallow. Studies suggest that by taking in so much data we overload our working memory and, as a result, process little of what we seemingly read. Furthermore, by training our brains thus, we simultaneously lose our capacity for deep comprehension and focused study and become addicted to the distraction. As our brains change in composition, forming around the habits we adopt, the long-term effects may go deeper than we think.
Broadly speaking, both books have problems. With Morozov, there is of course unfortunate timing, which means that there is no analysis of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, let alone Wikileaks or the rise of anonymous. The main issue, however, lies in the author’s approach, which is at times a far too general. While it’s all very well to deride internet-based campaigning in general, the specific strengths of the internet (i.e. speed and reach) are not adequately singled out and addressed, but rather cast aside with everything else. The discussion of authoritarian web regimes is illuminating, as is discussion of technologies once considered utopian (variously, the radio, the telegraph, the airplane) that have proved anything but. While the result of reading the book – a broader view of the internet in general– is helpful, I felt that the vague conclusions are unlikely to produce anything concrete.
Carr, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: trawling at a snail’s pace through a wealth of overwrought detail, only arriving at the scientific studies around page 115. When we finally get here, the evidence is somewhat less than fully compelling, making Carr’s occasional histrionics (“The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected”) seem a little overdone. While his conclusions are certainly plausible , the anecdotal nature of some of the evidence and the piecemeal nature of the scientific studies invite a sceptical response. While his theory is plausible, and some research backs it up, I felt that there simply wasn’t enough data here to decisively conclude. Added to this, Carr’s subsequent joviality about the web (“I have to confess: it’s cool”) doesn’t really help matters.
In conclusion then, we have two books that do not quite live up to their ambitions. What have we learned? That browsing online is less educational than focused study, and that there’s science to back that up. Further, we’ve found that the world’s most authoritarian governments have embraced the web, contra assertions that it is invariably good for democracy, to placate and spy on their populations, and that signing up to Facebook groups isn’t going to change anything fast. In short, the internet shouldn’t be embraced uncritically, and it is not all on our side. As for the book that explains precisely how and when the internet can be powerful, and when it can’t, we’re still waiting.