Annual Conference: Technology and Dissent

Photo: Irina Stelea

Between  February 6 and 10 2012, ECLA held its annual “Annual Conference”: an event devoted to current global issues in which guest lecturers, ECLA faculty and students explore a particular theme in a series of lectures, panel sessions and seminars.

This year the topic was “Censorship” and its connection to the state, religious belief, institutions and practices and technology. While the entire week was marked by heated discussions, it might be fair to say that it culminated on Friday with the lecture and panel session titled “Technology and Dissent”.

Evgeny Morozov, who delivered the morning lecture, is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Formerly he was a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Democracy at Georgetown University and George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

In 2005-2006 Morozov was a Project Year student at ECLA—before he moved to Prague, where he worked at Transitions Online, an NGO that deals with blogging and new media development in the former Soviet Bloc.

Morozov’s opening words were about what his personal experience had taught him.  And interestingly enough, it was that posing the question of how to think about technology and dissent is not productive, and we should instead ask how we should not think about them. There are many ways that we can think about technology and dissent, but mainly, we want to know the relationship between the two, so as to be able to incite and effect a certain change in the world.

Having worked for and with activists who want to promote dissent, Morozov believes now that the way most people think about the Internet does not help and actually harms the possibility for dissent. He holds (while emphasizing that he might be overstating and neglecting some important nuances) that people have three main assumptions with regard to the Internet, technology, governments and the action of citizens, which he debunks at least as unhelpful.

With regard to the Internet, a prevalent assumption is that it is an entity that also has an essence. One consequence of this is the conviction that the Internet is inherently liberalizing and democratizing. This is based on the idea that the technological design of the Internet is that of decentralization, or that of a structure which is meant to help the “small guys” and hurt the bad ones.

On the other hand, the assumption that the Internet has an essence can also lead to an opposite claim: that it is inherently bad and oppressive; a technological device that disrupts individual privacy and the proper working of institutions.

The way people think about technology is tightly connected to what they think about authoritarian and democratic governments, respectively. For Morozov, underlying those assumptions is the inability to comprehend authoritarian regimes. For most, authoritarian governments are very slow and impotent compared to the liberalizing power of the Internet and the fast-paced work of the activists.

They believe that dictators face a dilemma: either embrace modern technology and promote economic growth, but suffer liberalization, or shy away from technological development and suffer the economic consequences—“that is the logic which has dominated for the past 25 years.”

Morozov believes that “this logic” behind the power of the Internet goes back to the Cold War, in which people tended to overestimate the importance of technology and the possibility of it furthering a country’s development.

Another common assumption that results from those about the ‘nature’ of the Internet and authoritarian governments is that the citizens of countries with oppressive regimes are purely rational and that as soon as they are provided with the technology they will quickly educate themselves about human rights and search for information which could potentially be used against their governments. Ultimately, they will discover that their governments are “evil” and immediately practice dissent.

While those claims might be an overestimation, as Morozov said, we need, not to promote an alteration of those assumptions, or a mere inversion of signs, but rather to become involved with a different way of thinking. We should abandon the notion that the Internet has an essence, for it is not a single unitary being—every bit of it is “owned by people.”

We should evaluate the Internet’s influences, so we can see its further usage. From that revised perspective, we will see that the “dictator’s dilemma” makes no sense, since governments are not entities completely detached from technology. On the contrary, they are actively involved by means of censorship or alternative social-networking practices.

China and Russia have alternatives to Facebook, which allows the Governments to monitor and control dissent.  We should also do away with the notion that the citizens under non-democratic regimes are purely rational and only wait to get information that will help them dissent. Statistically speaking, when they acquire access to the Internet, most people use it to look for and download pornography, films, and to engage in social networking.

The lecture given by Evgeny Morozov provoked several responses to the effect that “nothing new” and actually practical was said. To this effect, Martin Gak, one of ECLA’s current faculty, responded to the ideas of Morozov in his blog, The Radical Secularist.

One of the issues he raised was that, while Morozov attacks “simplistic” views, his bi-polar division of people into those who think the Internet is bad and oppressive and those who hold that it is liberating and good, seems to entail an attack on “imaginary” individuals, for it is doubtful that the only people who have a more comprehensive view of the Internet are the techno-elites, or that most of us fall within either the category of techno-lovers, or techno-haters.

Another issue raised is that the relationship: government–Internet platforms/open virtual space–citizens/users is much more complex than Morozov seems to point out: the Internet has a revolutionary characteristic—“to cement an intermediate space in which neither national governments nor economic interests have free reign on individuals.”

Following on this complexity, Martin takes the example of Facebook, which, in fact, “owns” the identity of its users, making them “possessions” and in this way implying, perhaps, that the distinction between authoritarian regimes and certain unregulated Internet platforms as Facebook is not so clear cut, and thus pointing to the eventual need for an extra-governmental, international regulatory and individual rights-preserving structure.

by Maria Androushko (1st year BA, Bulgaria)

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