Evangelists of new communication technologies always always always make utopian promises about social change. And those promises always always always fall short. Hierarchies that were supposed to get flattened stubbornly settle into power law distributions, the result of preferential attachment that’s woven into social networks. Political systems that were supposed to get democratized stubbornly persist, because those in power exploit their total access to infrastructure and technology to overcome their populations’ limited options.
There are very deep social and political dynamics that new communication technologies in a sense “can’t reach,” and that end up channeling and circumscribing technologically-driven social change rather than vice versa. Technology has been and will again be disruptive, but history is unequivocal in insisting that those examples are rare exceptions.
And yet the last decade has seen an explosion in intellectual and pop intellectual cyber-utopianism. In a political context it was duly criticized by the likes of Evgeny Morozov, who warned against ignoring history and preemptively waxing eloquent about the revolutionary potential of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. And eventually it become untenable, and now Jay Rosen is insisting that it was never utopianism at all, but something more nuanced.
That seems off. Entire careers – academic, governmental, journalistic, etc – have been built by celebrating the political potential of new and social media technologies. The players who are pouring resources into University and government departments haven’t been overly-exuberant in referencing redoubtable caveats, in no small part because that wouldn’t be a very good institutional strategy. And since many of them have roles that crisscross academic, government, and journalistic contexts, their exhortations seep across spheres. To imply that unvarnished cyber-utopianism doesn’t exist and never existed impedes what Rosen’s actually after – getting past all that nonsense. Some weeding is going to have to happen first though.
Just to lay the groundwork, of course there’s been a flood of fairly uncritical articles on Egypt/Twitter and Egypt/Facebook. See here and here and here and here and here for examples from just the last few hours. Those come after years of fairly uncritical articles promising that Twitter and Facebook would upend political systems on every inhabited continent. See here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here for examples.
Enter Rosen, who as I take it is grumpy about two things:
(1) He thinks that the contrarians are attacking a straw man, because the ostensible cyber-utopians are actually level-headed pragmatists aware of the limitations of new communication technologies:
It’s not that simple… as if we thought it was… [examples of cyber-utopianism] sound bizarre to begin with, so bizarre that you immediately want to know who believes them… Twitter brings down governments is not a serious idea about the Internet and social change… It is a mystery why uprisings occur when they do. The grievances are usually old ones, and yet for a very long time the population suffered them rather than overturn the system.
(2) He thinks it’s absurd for the contrarians to set themselves up as lone Cassandras, since if Malcolm Gladwell is on that side then by definition it’s what the cool kids are doing:
A genre that is starting to get a swelled head about itself… it refuses to link to the claims it is criticizing so we can see for ourselves what the claim and its context were… it posits that out there somewhere are masses of loud and deluded people – cyber-utopians, they are sometimes called – who think it is as simple as ‘Twitter topples dictators,’ or ‘add Internet and you get revolution.’
Which is to say, he’s grumpy about the tone and content of contrarians who don’t engage the reasonable and interesting new media argument – “to what extent would late modern social change in the Arab world be occurring in the absence of the Internet” – and instead take shots at half-formed memes like “new media topples dictators.”
He’s right to the extent that a debate about the reasonable and interesting question would indeed be more reasonable and interesting. But he’s wrong that it’s the fault of the Morozovs and Gladwells that the debate occurs along the lines of the cyber-utopians. The contrarians are addressing a world where the institutional debate is lopsided. It’s not just that the State Department now has an office of eDiplomacy, although that’s probably worth mentioning since someone at some point decided to dismiss all those social media caveats and allocate resources. It’s that public discourse is being flooded with hagiographies to the magical powers of Twitter and Facebook.
Cyber-utopians want to have it both ways. They’d like to be seen as possessing this kind of sage worldliness, where they recognize the limitations of technology while keeping a stiff upper lip about the possibility of a marginally better world. What they actually do is occasionally gesture toward the most undeniable hiccups in their cyber-fantasies – the contingent frivolity of social media, which emerges because of the inherent thinness of new communication technologies – only to dismiss them.
Even when the headlines are flipped, the articles end up dismissing risks. To take a small example, CNN published an article on the State Department’s digital diplomacy initiative with the headline “Diplomats feel their way, blazing uneasy trail along digital highway.” The article quickly asserted that rumblings about diplomats’ Twitter-driven missteps were “distractions” that undermined “21st century statecraft.” To pretend that the point of the article was evaluation rather than celebration would require ignoring insights from mass communication to argumentation to beat-sweetening, and Rosen understands all of those quite well.
But more bluntly: the contrarians are right to insist that, rhetorical caveats aside, cyber-utopians don’t write or act as if they recognize the limitations of new media. They publish academic articles and award university positions and move State Department resources as if they believe that Twitter really does topple dictators. It’s simply not compelling for journalists and scholars to go all-in on titles like “The Facebook Revolution” or “The Twitter Revolution” or “Revolution 2.0,” only to then insist that their bets are being carefully hedged.
Now if you follow philosophical traditions from American pragmatism to European Marxism to Lacanian psychoanalysis, that’s good enough to conclude that that’s what they actually believe – but you don’t have to go that far. It’s enough to acknowledge that critics are right to go after the implicit thinking behind the explicit behavior of those extolling the potential of social media, because that’s what’s doing all the work anyway.
Let’s ignore the Gladwell “weak links” argument – which was on its own theoretically rich enough to spark a debate – and focus just on Morozov’s argument. It breaks down into two parts: partisans overstate the revolutionary potential of the Internet and understate its potential for repression.
The former argument seems tenable, at least in light that link dump at the top. As for the latter argument, here’s Jared Cohen – once the third-most followed politico in DC – on the potential for dictators to track cell phones:
Young people in these countries and more broadly throughout the developing world are using these technologies to shape their futures by challenging repressive laws and norms. I once asked a young Iranian if he was worried he would get caught using his cell phone to organize secret gatherings and his response was, “nobody over 30 in Iran knows what Bluetooth is.” That about summed up the generation gap.
That bravado turned out to be badly misplaced.
To the extent that Rosen sketches out the Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators genre, it’s not unfair to do the same for the genre of Of Course Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators, But Here Are A Couple Of Anecdotes To Tell At Parties So You Can Act Otherwise. I’m going to use Jared Cohen again, not because he’s the only one who writes this way but because he’s the best example of where cyber-utopianism meets the allocation of material resources, a rubber-meets-the-road moment where it’s difficult to see the persuasive force of the caveats that Rosen insists are always lurking. The op-ed is titled “The Digital Disruption,” so you can already tell how short will be the shrift given to “it’s not that simple” asides:
(1) Begin with something that happened on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. Make sure you include vaguely academic-sounding market speak. Use numbers:
The video is painful to watch. Amid screams of fear and pain, a Syrian girl at a school in Aleppo is forced to hold her classmate’s legs in the air. With a disconcertingly casual expression, their teacher hits the classmate’s feet repeatedly with a stick. This video is at the center of a scandal in Syria. Although Facebook and YouTube are banned there, the video has gone viral and has gained over 4,000 fans on its page. After bloggers and the local news media took notice, the Syrian government investigated and recently announced the firing of the teachers involved.
(2) Build your ethos by providing historical context, setting the stage for a subsequent move from anecdote to cyber-utopian generalization:
Syrian activists have used connection technologies to encourage protest before. Last June, mobile phone users used blogs and social networking sites to coordinate a boycott of Syrian telecom providers over high prices.
(3) Insert said cyber-utopian generalization:
However, the foot-beating incident is the first time activists have leveraged these technologies in a successful human-rights campaign. It illustrates that in repressive societies like Syria, where activists have to worry about getting caught, they increasingly operate Web sites rather than offices, gain followers rather than staff and use open-source platforms rather than relying on grants. The technology that has allowed millions to share photos and information is fast becoming the latest tool in political activism.
(4) Follow with Rosen-friendly judicious caveat:
The story is not always positive, of course, especially when the activists are unable to conceal their identity or, even worse, are infiltrated. Just weeks after the successful movement in Aleppo, the opposite happened in Damascus, where a 19-year old female Syrian blogger was arrested by authorities for “spying” — all too often the government label for dissent.
(5) Ignore said judicious caveat:
But the fact is that connection technologies will make the 21st century all about surprises. Indeed, new technologies and the desire for greater freedom are already changing politics in the most unlikely places. In 2008, Oscar Morales, an unemployed Colombian engineer, used popular social networking, video and Internet-based telephone services to orchestrate a massive demonstration against the FARC, Columbia’s Marxist insurgency. In Iran last year, a small number of citizens used proxy and circumvention technologies to get information out of the country and onto YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. Although they only had a small role in organizing the protests in Iran, these tools were instrumental in seizing the world’s attention.
And so on.
Now there are very interesting arguments to be had about how wrongheaded cyber-utopianism got a grip on the journalistic or academic imagination. A lot of it has to do with chasing the shiniest new thing, but I don’t think that’s entirely exhaustive.
At least in the academy there are sociological factors at work, including the need to publish quickly, which engenders the need to bracket as much previous work as possible (otherwise you’d have to answer it instead of just footnoting it at a reviewer’s insistence, and that’s hard). Young graduate students are never so enamored as when they have a blithe catchphrase and a methodological excuse to ignore centuries of scholarly research, and that fundamentally argumentative dynamic probably generalizes to public discourse.
But that’s way, way, way beyond this post. This post limited to disbelief that Rosen would accuse the contrarians of failing to give due heed to their opponents’ analysis. One last Jared Cohen quote:
When I brought up the op-ed, Cohen dismissed Morozov’s complaint. “The problem with his thinking… is it neglects the inevitability that this technology is going to spread… What the Evgeny Morozovs of the world don’t understand is that whether anybody likes it or not, the private sector is pumping out innovation like crazy… The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak,” Cohen said. “Which is a quote Alec and I often use when explaining this.”
Obviously the problem is that Morozov et al are glibly attacking straw arguments.
* Technological Visions: Hopes And Fears That Shape New Technologies [Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach]
* Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Revised Edition [James Carey]
* When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century [Carolyn Marvin]
* Power law [Wiki]
* Preferential attachment [Wiki]
* Global spread of the printing press [Wiki]
* Technological singularity [Wiki]
* Think Again: The Internet [Morozov / FP]
* The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article [Rosen]
* Egypt’s bloggers and an exercise in digital democracy [France 24]
* Facebook, Twitter and Egypt’s upheaval [SF Gate]
* WTOP.com – Washington, DC News, Weather & Traffic – WTOP.com – Egypt and Iran; Different looks at people power [AP]
* Egypt’s Facebook Revolution: Wael Ghonim Thanks The Social Network [HuffPo]
* Egypt’s Revolution by Social Media [WSJ]
* Facebook, Twitter and the Search for Peace in the Middle East [Huffington / HuPo]
* Twitter Is Hero as Feds Attempt to Trample WikiLeaks’ Free Speech [AlterNet]
* The Revolt of China’s Twittering Classes [Project Syndicate]
* The Cyberactivists Who Helped Topple a Dictator [Newsweek]
* Sudan: “Facebook Revolution” with the help of Twitter as a side kick [Global Voices Online]
* Twitter Seen As Tool For Social Change In China [NPR]
* Here comes the wiki revolution [Canada The Star]
* Venezuela: Twitter Revolution’s Next Stop? [EA World View]
* Diplomats feel their way, blazing uneasy trail along digital highway [CNN]
* Twitter Musings in Syria Elicit Groans in Washington [NYT]
* Mass Communication Archive [Icon Index Symbol]
* Argumentation Archive [Icon Index Symbol]
* WaPo: Obama Staffers The Bestest And Diligentest Staffers Ever. Especially That Gibbs Guy. He’s Super. [Mere Rhetoric]
* Pragmatism Archive [Icon Index Symbol]
* Slavoj Zizek Archive [Icon Index Symbol]
* Jacques Lacan Archive [Icon Index Symbol]
* Small Change [Gladwell / New Yorker]
* Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution [Lehner / Wired Science]
* Digital Age Has Ushered in an Opportunity for Unprecedented Global Collaboration [Cohen / HuffPo]
* Iran prepared to track dissent on social networks [Lake / WashTimes]
* The Digital Disruption [NYT]
* Digital Diplomacy [NYT]