Having not yet read Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate The World, and having missed his lecture on internet freedom at the LSE on Wednesday, I really ought to be keeping my mouth shut on this one. But given the nature of the debate and given that I can readily access a summary of the book online, not to mention download the lecture podcast, watch the replay of his appearance on Newsnight on iPlayer, and read any follow-up articles, I felt sufficiently empowered to come on here and offer my two pence worth.
Only, I’m not sure who exactly I am offering it to. See, this is the prob. Morozov argues that internet freedom is a myth. The obvious counter to this is that the internet has given us access to more information than ever before and in doing so has liberated us. We have knowledge, we have a voice and though we may be more exposed to propaganda and clandestine surveillance, our global network enables us to engage, to resist, and to revolt.
Inspiring stuff. Sadly it’s nonsense. Yes, we can access information on our own and we can tweet and blog til we’re blue in the face but where does that get us?
Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are lauded as the great facilitators of people power but psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated the conversely depressing nature of online interaction. Being constantly connected leads to more hours spent in front of the screen, more anxiety about your level of interaction, and ultimately less time spent in the real, physical company of others. Meanwhile, the illusion of sociability quickly comes crashing down on a Friday night in front of the telly when a quick perusal of your news feed reveals that everyone else is out on the piss.
When it comes to resistance, the sense of empowerment is deceptive. The solidarity shown last November when thousands retweeted Paul Chambers’ bombing joke with the hashtag #IamSpartacus was a fine display of nose-thumbing but it didn’t stop him losing his appeal.
In fact, when you think about it, the very idea of a ‘twitter revolution’ – involving thousands of people getting a bit worked up from behind their computer or phone screens – is faintly ridiculous. That is not to say governments won’t take action against the possibility, as we saw in Iran in 2009, but we should be careful not to confuse a state’s desire to police social media with any legitimate power of those media.
Information and communication are undoubtedly the tools of revolution but they are not the means. Just because thousands of people feel the same way about something does not necessarily mean they have the ability to come together and generate any kind of outcome. You might be singing the same songs but that does not make you a choir. And at some point you have to stop and ask yourself who the hell is listening anyway.
The internet may allow us a voice but without real human interaction and coordinated efforts to hear and be heard, it’s just one voice attempting to shout over a crowd of millions. It was heart-warming this week to discover the #lizjonesreports trend, just minutes after fuming my way through her Jo Yeates piece but after proudly posting my own satirical efforts it dawned on me that the majority of my followers are double glazing PRs. No surprise, then, that true catharsis wasn’t reached until later that evening when I was able to share the article with my friends.
Make no mistake, I am aware of the enormous irony of this post. For even as I write I become my own argument. The internet has given me access to the information I want and provided me with the tools to respond. My freedom to do all this is paramount and to have it curbed would be a violation indeed. But in the end what have I achieved? I have stuck my oar in, certainly, but I doubt very much if that means I get to row the boat. You never know, I suppose. As a journalist I stand at least some chance of having my words read but even then it’ll largely be by eco-conservatory purveyors, most of whom, I’d wager, aren’t too bothered about starting a revolution with me.
The internet might spark a trend, or an idea; it can provide the information needed in a conversation or a debate but to really engage, to really resist, we have to be able to take those things and use them in ways more empowering than a 140 character tweet. When it comes to freedom, as always, the real revolution occurs offline.