x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Techno-utopian fail

Technology From Iran to China, blogs and social-networking sites were touted by the West as the ultimate tools of democracy dissident movements. However, observes Evgeny Morozov, last year the revolution would not be Twitterised.

A screen grab from YouTube shows Neda Agha-Soltan lying on the ground after getting shot in the chest in Tehran on June 20.
A screen grab from YouTube shows Neda Agha-Soltan lying on the ground after getting shot in the chest in Tehran on June 20.

From Iran to China, blogs and social-networking sites were touted by the West as the ultimate tools of democracy dissident movements. However, observes Evgeny Morozov, last year the revolution would not be Twitterised. If there were an award for the most embarrassing e-mail of the year, the June 15 missive to the executives of Twitter from Jared Cohen, the 28-year social-media guru at the US State Department, would surely trump any competition. What could be more emblematic of the wild techno-utopianism that has hijacked American foreign policy than this Washington insider pleading with Twitter - once known as the best place to share what you had for breakfast - to delay their planned maintenance downtime so that Iran's Revolution could proceed undisturbed?

It seemed like a neoconservative dream come true: hordes of brave green-clad young Iranians breaking through the firewalls of the deranged ayatollahs, all with the help of an American start-up, run by thirtysomething Californians on generous handouts from venture capitalists. Who needs diplomacy when we've got Twitter? That it was mostly foreigners tweet-touting the revolution, that popular Iranian sites such as Balatarin played a much more important role locally, that the Iranian authorities were trolling Twitter to gather intelligence about the protesters - all of that was lost on western commentators who took the events in Iran to be the ultimate proof that the digital revolution was upon us ("This is it. The big one," the web guru Clay Shirky proclaimed in an interview with TED.com). It wasn't long before Gordon Brown suggested that "another Rwanda" would be impossible in the age of Twitter.

Public fascination with the democratising potential of the internet peaked in November 2009 when the Italian edition of Wired magazine launched a global campaign to nominate the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. At that point, Mark Pfeifle, a former deputy national security adviser for the Bush Administration, had already spent months campaigning along similar lines. Twitter's founders, never ones to shy away from publicity, proclaimed their invention to be "a triumph of humanity".

This outburst of techno-utopianism is hardly surprising. Every few years the public fixes its gaze on a new technology, which, no matter how trivial, is immediately endowed with magical, even revolutionary powers. 1989 had its fax and Xerox machines; 1999 its modems and laptops; 2009 has been all about blogs, social networks and Twitter. Techno-utopianism is usually rooted in rigid and obsolete views about the relationship between authoritarianism and information. Most techno-utopians interpret the fact that authoritarian governments resort to censorship as a sign of their weakness. Hence, whenever authoritarian governments cede control over information, they are believed to become weaker. Thus, every time Chinese bloggers use proxy servers to access banned content, they are slowly eroding the Great Firewall of China. And where the firewalls fall, dictators soon follow.

This view is fatally flawed, as it understates the sophistication and flexibility of modern authoritarian states and overstates the democratic aspirations of their citizens. Western leaders have an unhealthy tendency to imagine politics in authoritarian states as being more hyperactive and participatory than the politics in their own countries. They implicitly view all Chinese, Russians and Iranians as hard-core news junkies and seasoned political dissidents. Authoritarian states are thus seen to be one step away from full-blown revolution - and waiting for the West to nudge them, whether via the Voice of America, BBC World, or judicious retweets.

But this is an anachronistic view of the world. Modern authoritarian states have eagerly (but selectively) embraced globalisation to provide their citizens with at least a modicum of self-actualisation without ever abandoning their authoritarianism. Their young people travel the world, learn English, use Skype and poke each other on Facebook - all while competing for comfortable jobs with state-owned companies. We are entering the age of "accommodating authoritarianism" - and the internet has played a crucial (though hardly the only) role in providing many of the accommodations. 

The reason why the Chinese can download Weeds or Mad Men from peer-to-peer networks is not because the Chinese government can no longer police the web. It's because watching Weeds and Mad Men is what young people living under contemporary authoritarians are supposed to do. These societies no longer operate in the world of cultural scarcity; it's hard to nudge them towards dissent with the promise of blue jeans or prohibited vinyl records. For every Chinese blogger that the techno-utopians expect to fight their government via Twitter, there are a hundred others who feel content with the status quo. 

In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology. The recent outburst of techno-utopianism in the West may thus be just another futile attempt to imagine a world where the purest ideal of Athenian democracy, uncorrupted by special interests and popular culture, is not only possible but could actually be facilitated by its more corrupt, frivolous, and somewhat culpable western sibling. This, of course, is an illusion. Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity - the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.

Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine and a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University. His book about the internet and democracy will be published in late 2010 by Public Affairs / Allen Lane.