Cyber Utopia Vs Dystopia

We’ve been hearing a lot about how social media played a huge role in the Arab uprisings and how new technology is transforming revolutions, to the point where it became overhyped. Evgeny Morozov questions this widespread idea, and I side with his point of view.

Morozov, a dystopian, criticizes “cyber-Utopianism” by trying to provide a new angle to this idea of “Internet liberty”. Based on Morozov’s debate, he argues that social media such as Facebook and Twitter, should not be marked as the primary catalysts of the revolutions, for they are merely a “Net Delusion”, pointing out that the internet gives us the misconception of contribution and action,like “slacktivism.” In fact, Morozov believes the internet is breeding a generation of slacktivists. On Foreign Policy, Morozov posted an article about the topic of slacktivism on the internet saying that,

“Our digital effort make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact. When the marginal cost of joining yet another Facebook group are low, we click “yes” without even blinking, but the truth is that it may distract us from helping the same cause in more productive ways. Paradoxically, it often means that the very act of joining a Facebook group is often the end – rather than the beginning – of our engagement with a cause, which undermines much of digital activism.”

He brings up an interesting psychological concept called “Social loafing” or “diffusion of responsibility”. This is when people put much less effort into a task when they know other people are doing it with them.

Morozov also mentioned the term “internet-centrism”-the belief that Internet communication has the ability to change society. When revolutions happen , he argues that there are, rather, other underlying causes for revolutions, like the social and political conditions that also played a part in accelerating change.

Furthermore, Morozov challenges the role of social media and believes that technology can in fact be interruptive in the process of change, because some societies may be manipulated by authoritarian states. He concluded that connectivity does not equal democracy, due to the fact that governments use the Internet to control people and this control undermines the potential for democracy.  So, the Internet may be in fact impeding democracy and “it oppresses more than it liberates”, as Morozov put it.

This is shown in an article in “The Guardian” where Morozov pointed out that,

“The west’s reckless promotion of technological tools as pro-democratic agents has provoked authoritarian regimes to crack down on online activity in some style: not just closing down or blocking websites, but using social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters, seeding their own propaganda online, and generally out-resourcing and out-smarting their beleaguered citizenry.”

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In other words, governments actually have more power over information than we think. In the case of political revolutions, they use this power to track down protestors. I partly agree with Morozov, in that the internet should not be considered a perfect place where democracy thrives because it is also prone to problems, and societies everywhere including Kuwait,Russia, and China face content regulation and website blocking, for example.  So, in this sense, the Internet should not be considered a “cyber utopian” place.

On the other side of the spectrum, Clay Shirky believes in the rise of social networks and their empowering effect on groups and individuals. He brings up a more optimistic viewpoint about the web, believing the democratization of media technologies enable people to instantly coordinate with the masses across distances that transcend geographical barriers. Shirky also attributes the success of political movements like the Arab Spring to social media tools as an opportunity for activist groups to easily spread their message.

Based on our readings, Shirky highlights the benefits of the web. In new media where everyone can consume, produce and share information, the publishing then filtering process allows us as an online audience to determine what is good and what is mediocre content. Because of plentiful of information on the web, Shirky says that “we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us.” We stumble across information, when some of what we might find online wasn’t written with us in mind. So even though the information is accessible to the public, the target is actually private. Similarly, if someone is talking out loud and you are eavesdropping, that does not mean that what you hear is intended for you. People post “user-generated content” that finds its way to a public audience.

The same applies to social networks like Facebook, we see everyone’s activity on the newsfeed, but we still sometimes resort to filtering out the people we don’t want to hear from. Then why add them as friends? Maybe it is much easier to add them then ignore their activity?

Shirky also mentioned a term known as community of practice. This interaction consists of sharing information and through this conversations are produced. These interactions, again, are not intended for everybody, but a group of friends or people. This allows for an exchange of information between people anywhere in the world. I think it would apply to the social website called Reddit, where users submit content from other sources. Reddit users are able to upvote or downvote the published content, the more upvotes the more likely it is going to find its way to a large audience, so the information is being “filtered” by the audience.

The internet certainly allows for many more people the freedom to share their ideas, as opposed to the filter then publish model that requires a publisher.One downside is that this access to information publication may easily enable deception on blogs, especially in cases like the Georgian blogger who impersonated himself as a Syrian lesbian during the revolution.

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