No time for faith in the Internet

To judge these books by their covers, they could not be more different.

The Revolution Will Be Digitised, by journalist and transparency campaigner Heather Brooke, exudes disruptive zeal. The author’s excitement at the prospect of the status quo being turned on its head by the free exchange of information is palpable.

Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, by contrast, has the character of a party pooper. While everyone gets swept away by the idea that social media might empower the downtrodden masses to stand up to their oppressors, the writer and researcher reminds us that every significant technology of the past 100 years has been met with the same giddy optimism. This, he points out, soon gives way to the realisation that bad guys can use technology too.

In truth, they are not so different. They both capture the moment in history when humanity realises that the Internet is not just a series of tubes, but a tool that can be wielded to shape society – for better or worse.

In The Revolution Will Be Digitised, Brooke, best known for her dogged investigation into MPs’ expenses, documents recent developments in ‘information activism’, often from first-hand experience.

Much of the book is dedicated to describing how transparency site Wikileaks went from a little-known curiosity to the biggest story on the planet, and how founder Julian Assange subsequently alienated many of his followers, supporters and collaborators.

Not for the first time, Assange does not come off well. Brooke is clearly not of the view that lofty ideals about an open society necessarily make one a positive influence.

In telling that story, Brooke raises pertinent questions about the societal impact of Internet censorship, and the book is not as utopian as the title might suggest. Human beings have always sought to exert power by controlling information, she explains, and it is happening all around us today.

The Net Delusion, meanwhile, is a worthwhile addition to the techno-realist canon (see also David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old). The book documents the many ways in which Internet technology, like its forebears the telegraph, radio and television, can be used to oppress, deceive and mollify the people. It also points out that Western optimism about the miraculous powers of the Internet might prevent us from seeing this when it happens.

Morozov gives the telling example of the 2009 elections in Azerbaijan. The authorities installed webcams in election stations, ostensibly to prove how fair and open the electoral process was. However, according to one source, those webcams were also used to remind state employees that their votes were being watched.

As reading material, both books are enjoyable. Brooke’s is journalistic, so occasionally histrionic, but mostly personal, readable and exciting. Morozov’s is more academic: repetitive and wordy in parts, but also thorough, informative and highly persuasive.

More importantly, though, they both express why this is no time for blind faith in the power of the Internet to produce a fairer, more open and more productive society.

The Internet touches on every field of human endeavour, and every interest group can either see it as a threat to be thwarted or a tool to be exploited, or both. Technologically speaking, it is a medium that can quite easily be corrupted, co-opted, censored, blocked and bugged, and there are plenty of people who are willing to try.

It is therefore up to citizens, governments, lawmakers and technologists to ensure that the Internet is an agent for the kind of society that we want to live in. 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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