Hugo Chávez Gets a Twitter Account

April 19, 2011 Topics: MediaTechnologySociety Regions: United States

Hugo Chávez Gets a Twitter Account

Mini Teaser: According to cyberutopians like Clay Shirky, everything from Wikileaks to Twitter is making us better, kinder, gentler human beings. But technology is a tool that can be manipulated by both peaceful protesters and repressive governments.

by Author(s): Christian Caryl

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website (New York: Crown, 2011), 304 pp., $23.00.

David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 352 pp., $15.99.

Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 432 pp., $27.95.

Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 256 pp., $25.95.

[amazon 9781594202537 full]THE UNITED States has always been a nation of technological optimists. From Jefferson to Edison to the 1939 World’s Fair, giddiness over gadgetry is as American as apple pie. Benjamin Franklin refused to patent his inventions in the belief that he was creating public goods. Buckminster Fuller leapt from designing radical new structures like the energy-efficient and easy-to-construct Dymaxion House to the conclusion that “selfishness is unnecessary”—and dismissed it as the product of irrational minds. Surely it is no coincidence that our country has also produced generals who pronounced that wars could be won through the sole use of airpower or central bankers who were convinced that they had vanquished risk through fancy mathematical algorithms. Our faith in engineering has a habit of sliding over into our idealism about society.

The creation of the Internet produced a vast swath of fertile new territory for those who believe that progress in technology equates with progress, full stop. Visions of direct democracy, power to the people, danced in activists’ heads. The technology itself might have been new, but the talk about newness was entirely old hat. When the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, declared in his 1995 book Being Digital that “a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices” and that “digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony,” he ended up sounding more like a creaky Wilsonian than a fresh-faced rebel. The dot-com collapse at the end of the 1990s soon derailed some of the more grandiose predictions (especially the ones about the impending dawn of an economy freed from the burden of bricks and mortar). And talk of global harmony suddenly seemed rather outré after al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States.

But history must always take another turn, and now revolution is sweeping the Middle East—powerfully abetted, it would appear, by the very same networks that finally seem to be delivering on their radically transformational promise. Not that long ago we were labeling revolutions by color; now we give them the names of Silicon Valley companies. Surely the inevitability-of-human-progress-through-technology skeptics got it wrong?

IF YOU believe Clay Shirky, the basic story goes something like this: We human beings are group animals. We are naturally prone to “generous, social, and creative behavior,” so the Internet will bring out the best in us. The rise of social media means that a densely interconnected world must necessarily be a happier one. No longer will we sit passively before our television sets. Now we can engage in active participation with our peers, forging communities without regard to geography or cost. “This increase in our ability to create things together, to pool our free time and particular talents into something useful, is one of the great new opportunities of the age, one that changes the behaviors of people who take advantage of it.”

Shirky, an expert on social media at New York University, believes all of this quite firmly. So he decided to indulge in a classic Web 2.0 response: he sat down and wrote a book. But fine, fair enough. There’s no reason why books shouldn’t have a place in a networked world—even if the only sharing that they offer is a strictly one-way street, imperious author declaiming to mute and worshipful reader.

This is but one of several ironies that come to mind as you make your way through Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s new book on the possibilities of social media. The title refers to the enormous social capital that can now be tapped as we push back our recliners and step away from the television set to the computer in the next room. No longer will we be content in our old roles as passive consumers. Now we can band together in all sorts of unexpected ways to create new public projects—from sites where people converge to think up mindless captions for cat pictures to more serious efforts like Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing site in Kenya that aggregates reports about acts of violence committed against critics of the government. Many of their future equivalents, Shirky willingly concedes, will turn out to be pointless, silly or of limited social utility. But we shouldn’t be surprised, he says, if some of them end up making remarkable contributions to the global commons.

This is where another irony kicks in. Shirky aspires to be one more citizen in a seamlessly connected world, yet his vision of international relations is distinctly American. Dictators are dumb. Underdogs are virtuous. Innovation and transparency are always on the side of justice. We’re all only people in the end. “The sensible reason to do things is for money, so doing things for free requires a special explanation,” he intones, and then sets out to explain the rationale for amateurism. I’m so glad we got that out of the way.

His book—with its long excurses on the soul-sapping power of Gilligan’s Island—is so parochial that it is not surprising that Shirky usually ends up missing big chunks of the picture when he ventures abroad in search of the kind of collaborative behavior that intrigues him.

So, for example, he cites the case of the Philippines in 2001, when protesters used cell phones to organize street demonstrations that chased President Joseph Estrada from office. But Shirky doesn’t seem to have heard of Filipinos’ earlier and much more heroic protest against the rule of an actual dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986—and they managed to do it without any fancy gadgets at all. Shirky is also eager to sing the praises of a grassroots feminist group in India who used the Internet to conduct a sassy campaign against a bunch of dour Hindu fundamentalists a few years ago. But you could easily read his account without realizing that the bad guys actually belong to a marginal and widely maligned group, and that it’s the feminists who enjoy the support of the police and the state government.

There are similar problems with Shirky’s recounting of South Korea’s 2008 public-protest movements against American beef imports, a campaign that virtually crippled the nascent presidency of Lee Myung-bak. For Shirky, this is above all the remarkable tale of apathetic teenage girls drawn into their first political demonstration through their shared participation in a popular boy-band website. The real story is much broader and rather less uplifting. The protests were really triggered by a muckraking TV show that claimed that Americans were dying from mad cow disease they had caught from eating infected beef. (The network was later forced to admit that its journalists had made the whole thing up.) The protests were based on a bogus issue, and ultimately they were of minimal consequence. President Lee apologized but remains in office; U.S. beef imports later resumed. But Shirky isn’t interested in the details. He just wants to make the point that social media can make things happen.

I don’t doubt that they sometimes do. I’m sure that Facebook played a vital role in helping Egyptian protesters organize. Yet the more closely we examine any of the cases of political upheaval where social media are said to play a role, the more complex the picture becomes. The same people who got the revolution rolling in Tahrir Square early this year started a Facebook page for a workers’ protest back in 2008 that quickly gained seventy thousand followers. But that movement soon fizzled out. And then there’s the intriguing fact that the biggest demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere came out only after the Egyptian government had completely switched off the Internet in the country. If you talk to many activists in the Middle East, they’ll tell you that the most powerful social medium during the recent turmoil was not the Internet or mobile phones but Al Jazeera, the satellite-TV network that has, for the first time, created an instantaneous public space for the entire Arabic-speaking region—notwithstanding Shirky’s contempt for the passivity of television.

DOES THAT mean that satellite TV is inherently emancipatory? Of course not. Technologies don’t come with built-in values; any innovation offers the potential for evil as well as for good. Yet there is something about the seductive potential of the Internet that makes us unwilling to give it up without a fight. Not long ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a remarkable speech proclaiming “Internet freedom” as an absolute goal of U.S. foreign policy, based on the assumption that the free flow of information in cyberspace will inevitably challenge authoritarian regimes.

Pullquote: All too often cyberutopians of the Shirky variety seem to assume that participation and collective creation are automatically good things.Image: Essay Types: Book Review