The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011), By Evgeny Morozov


Evgeny Morozov, an intellectual self-exile from Belarus and now a US academic, and angry about several things some of which will never change and others which apparently must change, has slammed a torpedo into the cruise ship, Internet Utopia.

He’s no Machiavelli but that terrible, terribly incisive mind would probably give Morozov a B grade for The Net Delusion. High praise.

Morozov joins Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerline in a growing de facto club Morozov calls “cyber-realists.” They independently mock “Internet-centrists” and “cyber-utopians.” It’s about time, I say. If spreading democracy by the sword seemed folly not so long ago, spreading democracy by the Internet, the Current Simplification, seems just as nutty.

I had dinner tonight with a one-time physician from Cairo, and here one listens these days: Clearly it is no longer the “Arab Spring.” In fact, given that all the world’s a stage, better to think of this particular dark matter as yet again a classic human drama about autocracy. And what you hear is that Act Two is upon us. The setting is darker. Facing an insurrection, the old powerful are working very hard to adapt, recover and prevail. In the gathering darkness, there are strange, loud, fearsome sounds just off stage. There’s a sense of momentum shifting. And as you observe, you know that you’ve come to one of the most difficult moments to which we can come: A reality that haunts far too much of history.  You are apart from it, yet obviously you are not. I’d just finished several days ago rereading portions of The Prince and knew I should have done so, unmentioned and withheld. Taking that depressing tour was more than an intuition, certainly. Andy Grove’s “Only the paranoid survive” likewise came to mind in the midst of Cairo, Machiavelli, and one’s thoughts turning to Act Two. Yes, that’s the Act we’re now watching. A familiar, disheartening one, no?

I’ve been thinking of Machiavelli because his reading of human anthropology, understated and implicit in The Prince but rising like a huge summer sun from the beginning of that pitiless and misanthropic classic, informs Morozov’s attacking arguments throughout The Net Delusion. People will forever make Lolcat or its later ilk the most popular place to go on the Internet. Dictators, certainly emerging ones, will learn such things and continue to hew to Machiavelli’s advice by making the necessary adjustments. Some dictators will be smarter than others (Morozov in a recent article says that the Internet did not destroy Mubarak but that Mubarak’s ignorance of the Internet did) and luckier (Machiavelli prefers to talk about “fortune” and it does seem like a richer way to get at the huge matter). Not only will cheap entertainment always lull, but counters to Facebook and Twitter are already in being, and ironically they work to sow propaganda as well as reduce hiding places from the secret police and spawn a new kind of censorship based on making lots of noise and adding to the general confusion. Nobody here is making much about it, but beating the Internet into autocratic swords is starting to occur in several dimensions.

Morozov never tires of reminding that executives of US Internet-based corporations generally know little about history and political dynamics and will make outlandish claims of democratization through the Internet because it’s good business, at least for the present.

Ditto politicians.

Pundits and the media? They have been doing so too in a growing chorus, and Morozov is angry at them too, but they too will ever oversimplify as they plan according to the anthropology and primatology of the audience they depend on and cannot breathe a sound about: in sum, overselling always sells.

For all these groups, anthropology and primatology must never be mentioned. Don’t talk about Lolcat, just present it and as much like it as you can think up. The Lolcat approach can be adapted to anything put on the air, including revolutions.

Morozov says early: “The idea that the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor is marred by what I call cyber-utopianism: a naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.”

He suffers a bit, I think, from overreliance on the Rational Man Assumption, which means he’s a tad too serious in a sense, taking self-serving pronouncements of the digerati at face value, but he does go on to demolish “cyber-utopianism” and then pound it to smithereens with much more than enough supporting history and argument. His chapter headings tell the story: The Google Doctrine; Texting Like It’s 1989; Orwell’s Favorite Lolcat; Censors and Sensibilities; Hugo Chavez Would Like to Welcome You to the Spinternet; Why the KGB Wants You to Join Facebook; Why Kierkegaard Hates Slactivism; Open Networks, Narrow Minds: Cultural Contradictions of Internet Freedom; and Internet Freedoms and Their Consequences.

He names names of those who have made silly sweeping generalities about the Internet ending history. An especially telling section goes back through the telegraph, radio and television: the similar claims then.

The Cable TV talking heads will effortlessly move to Act Two. (Probably they won’t much report on it; back to Lolcat.) Columnists will tell you they’ve actually known all along that Act Two would be troubling. They’ll then proceed to warn you about Act Two being troublesome. They’ll write books about it.

Meanwhile, the world will continue along much as it has, if often seemingly at an alarmingly accelerating rate.

Morozov does, however, have a sense of humor. You’ll find yourself laughing ruefully in many places in this disgusted book.

I think it ends on a more disheartened note than it started on.

There’s not much of a sense in The Net Delusion of muddling through. Too bad. That seems to be the rule of things.