Our Movement and the Internet: Two book reviews


9:38 am - July 16th 2011

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contribution by Joseph Ritchie

One story emerging from the Murdoch debacle concerns the importance of an online campaign in bringing down The News of the World. The campaign, detailed here, is of course one of many important recent political mobilizations associated with the internet, a trend seen everywhere from Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” to the current uprisings in the Middle East.

As the internet will only grow in importance over coming years, careful assessment is clearly necessary.

The books, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World by Evgeny Morozov, and The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr promised to shine some light on the phenomena. But do they?

The first book, as the title suggests, takes issue with the emphasis on the internet as a tool of social change. Carr’s book, on the other hand, focuses more on the medium in a more general sense, and discusses how it affects who we are.

The Net Delusion brings forward a number of critiques, and is concerned with both over-emphasis of the web as a tool for social change and ignorance about the darker side of internet use. The Western faith in the internet as a tool of social change, he argues, comes from the cartoonish belief the spread of ideas, independent from the contradictions of the Soviet Union, that ended the Cold War.

This means that in Iran for example, where only 60 active Twitter accounts during the 2009 upheaval could be confirmed (compared to 20 000 registered accounts in Iran as a whole) the same narrative is swiftly re-heated and erroneously trotted out. As well as being a distraction, he argues, Western emphasis provokes internet crackdowns by the governments in question.

With this established, Morozov work through his other critiques in a rather unstructured way and, frankly, it’s open season on sacred cows.

For instance, despite our perception of authoritarian governments as Orwellian structures of joyless terror, incompetent in technical matters, Morozov describes the creative ways in which the internet is used to ensnare. So, we are told about addictive, narcotizing online entertainment from the Kremlin and Chinese internet games, alongside the states newly found opportunities for spying and monitoring it’s population, provided partly by social networking.

Morozov is also unconvinced about the internets capacity to enforce change, arguing that the values of online campaigning – convenience, speed, networking – may actually work against the necessary values of a successful campaign, i.e. long term planning, solidarity and willingness to sacrifice. The role of the internet in organizing reactionary movements – who apparently also blog – is discussed, as is the importance of the internet for organized crime.

By contrast, ‘The Shallows” presents a rather coherent narrative: increased use of the internet, Carr writes, makes us inattentive, scattered and shallow. Studies suggest that by taking in so much data we overload our working memory and, as a result, process little of what we seemingly read. Furthermore, by training our brains thus, we simultaneously lose our capacity for deep comprehension and focused study and become addicted to the distraction. As our brains change in composition, forming around the habits we adopt, the long-term effects may go deeper than we think.

Broadly speaking, both books have problems.

With Morozov, there is of course unfortunate timing, which means that there is no analysis of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, let alone Wikileaks or the rise of anonymous. The main issue, however, lies in the author’s approach, which is at times a far too general.

Carr, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: trawling at a snail’s pace through a wealth of overwrought detail, only arriving at the scientific studies around page 115. When we finally get here, the evidence is somewhat less than fully compelling, making Carr’s occasional histrionics (“The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected”) seem a little overdone.

While his theory is plausible, and some research backs it up, I felt that there simply wasn’t enough data here to decisively conclude. Added to this, Carr’s subsequent joviality about the web (“I have to confess: it’s cool”) doesn’t really help matters.

In conclusion then, we have two books that do not quite live up to their ambitions. What have we learned? That browsing online is less educational than focused study, and that there’s science to back that up.

Further, we’ve found that the world’s most authoritarian governments have embraced the web, contra assertions that it is invariably good for democracy, to placate and spy on their populations, and that signing up to Facebook groups isn’t going to change anything fast. In short, the internet shouldn’t be embraced uncritically, and it is not all on our side. As for the book that explains precisely how and when the internet can be powerful, and when it can’t, we’re still waiting.


Joseph Ritchie blogs at A Scanner Despairingly

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Reader comments


Some nice details – I esp like the communist computer games.
It would be interesting to have some predictions about whether this perception of change will last?

2. Paul Newman

Our movement ? It was the left which consistently blamed the condition of the Middle East on Israel America and everyone they hated excusing the vile regimes they apologised for again and again. Now its “Our movement is it … and once again history is re-written.
As for Murdoch. OK,they broke the law but they were not alone. In “What Price Privacy Now“, the information Commissioners reports on a ubiquitous trade in illegally obtained information. In the league table of offenders the Mirror is prominent. The News of The World was better than many.
Is it, in any case, a simple issue? Many MPs of ,still sore about expenses, are delighted to shut that window on the truth. Nixon would have liked a bit less pilfering
Now Polly Toynbee wants to neuter the Mail with some sort of supercharged PCC and who knows what Fascist legislation .Liberal Conspiracy ,has just carried a post recommending we enforce political ”neutrality” on the printed media. In whose opinion? The same people that entrusted Polly Toynbee with editorship of social affairs at the BBC no doubt .
I fear an unholy alliance of would-be troughers, corrupt elitists, and freedom hating socialists turning the blood lust on all their enemies. Danger, Will Robinson; danger !
The main use of the internet in the UK has been to circumvent the hold the left have on the BBC. If they get their way and clamp down on the Press again the internet will become the centre of resistance …but not for “Our movement ”

For ours .

3. Shatterface

These books are printed media and as such should be treated with the same caution as films about the deletorious effects of television.

Every new media becomes the focus of anxiety for practitioners of older media.

The idea that knowledge culled from the internet has less depth than that learned in libraries presuposes that library books aren’t full of horseshit. Most psychology sections in your local library will contain acres of Freud, for instance, bevause they are ‘classics’ – not because they tell us anything about the workings of the human mind.

The library is still an institution which reveres ‘Great Names’ over ideas. Arguments from authority are routinely challenged on the internet.

OK,they broke the law but they were not alone. In “What Price Privacy Now“, the information Commissioners reports on a ubiquitous trade in illegally obtained information. In the league table of offenders the Mirror is prominent.

You should just post a link to Guido Fawkes instead of pretending you came to that by yourself. That report, incidentally, did not cover phone-hacking.

It was the left which consistently blamed the condition of the Middle East on Israel America

Do you know which two countries were most opposed to getting rid of Hosni Mubarak early on?

There is a large amount of literature that compares blogging with the pamphleteering which took place prior to both the French and American revolutions. The impact of pamphleteering is considered to have been an important element in attracting support and concrete action against the prevailing governments. However, the anti-establishment feeling was already strong throughout the middle-class population of both countries and ultimately it was that class who organized the revolution and became its’ new government.
I don’t see such widespread antagonism, either from the middle or working-class population and it seems that the media (of whatever hue) manages quite well to distract attention(blame) from the real causes of their discontent.
I haven’t read either of the books cited in the OP but if I learned anything from media studies (yep, fraid I did it years ago) is that there is a complex interaction between transmitter, message and receiver and interpretation of new infromation/ideas will always be influenced by our existing knowledge, values etc.
Imo, this will hold true until our economic survival is seriously threatened en mass and our old values slowly become watered down.

6. theophrastus

“The Western faith in the internet as a tool of social change, he argues, comes from the cartoonish belief the spread of ideas, independent from the contradictions of the Soviet Union, that ended the Cold War.”

Please can you write in clear and simple English? This sentence makes little sense. (Editors?)

And the leftist jargon does not aid understanding: “the contradictions of the Soviet Union” – err…contradictions exist between propositions/statements, not in states. Marxist/Hegelian ‘logic’ is bunk, which is not to deny that Marx and Hegel had some relevant things to say…

7. Joseph Ritchie

Fair play. I meant to write:

“The Western faith in the internet as a tool of social change, he argues, comes from the cartoonish belief THAT the spread of ideas, independent from the contradictions of the Soviet Union, ended the Cold War.”

8. Charlieman

@6. theophrastus: Quoting “The Western faith in the internet as a tool of social change, he argues, comes from the cartoonish belief the spread of ideas, independent from the contradictions of the Soviet Union, that ended the Cold War.”

The sentence technically qualifies as a sentence. But if you wished to communicate, you’d make a bit more effort.

9. Charlieman

@7. Joseph Ritchie

You are missing the point. Ideally, your post will be read by lots of people. A top post on LC will be read by 1,000 avid readers who are unable to change the political or charitable organisations to which they belong.

But you should not write for them, avid LC followers. Write for the bloke in a pub.

10. Paul Newman

Sunny I am afraid am less original than you suppose.I came by that report on a recent thread on Liberal Conspiracy, you should read it( Its awfully good )
Lets not waste sympathy on the digger. His acolytes colluded in the corrupt relationship between the political power brokers and the media through the Blair and Brown period. Parliament under New Labour was replaced by a media obsessed entourage of self delighted courtiers like Alistair Campbell. An end to that would be welcome and Cameron seems to be gasping the opportunity. Win win
The report, however, crushes the always flimsy pretence there is anything other than raw power politics involved in the coup.New Labours desperate efforts to capitalise on it are frankly bizarre given their deep deep complicity.

Egypt has long been the least worst Arab state, it was kicked out of the Arab league for talking peace to Israel and I would not accept that its leadership are in the same bracket as most of the tin pot dictators.
What you have not registered is that your years of asserting the moral equivalence between democratic Liberal open Israel and the murderous foul regimes you support is another Soviet Union style wrong call.. I am old enough to recall how often wise acre lefties were indifferent to the USSR and America. Looking back it was a sort of collective insanity.
The failure to support Western Liberal values in the Middle east ( because they were Western ) has repeated itself and you are right to start running for cover now.Look look, you say , in some miniscule way I can blame, what I assume are the US and Britain (You appreciate both countries have sensitivities towards Egypt right ?) Do you never learn?
Nick Cohen can spend the rest of his life saying I TOLD YOU SO ..enjoy

Doesn’t someone claiming that Nick Cohen might actually be right about something on any given subject automatically lose at the internetz? Pretty sure that’s a rule.

TLDR!


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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