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Friend or foe? Morozov, Shirky debate the web's messy relationship with political resistance

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, December 18 2009

Foreign Policy's Evegeny Morozov has a cover story in this month's Prospect (UK) on how he evolved into a hearty skepticism about technology's potential to slay dictators, empower the disempowered, and generally lead to a more just political landscape. Morozov -- who has been in the past affiliated with Georgetown University, in his role as a Yahoo! Fellow, as well as George Soros' Open Society Institute -- turned from a proponent of digital democracy to a doubter when his efforts in the field, he says, "seemed to be hurting the very causes we were trying to promote." Morozov's critique here centers on the idea that intolerant regimes seem to be getting pretty skilled as using the Internet to their own advantage.

In this Prospect essay, Morozov brands New York University professor and theorist Clay Shirky "the man most responsible for the intellectual confusion over the political role of the internet." And so, Prospect has given Shirky a chance to respond. He takes the opportunity to highlight how social media creates a new kind of "information cascade" when it comes to political resistance. In other words and to put it simply, the idea is that potential political protestors can wait and see the government responds to opposition. Political protests can have a longer tail today because those on the fence benefit from watching -- often in real time -- how early adopters fare in their resistance. Shirky:

Prior to the spread of social media, a typical classic case of late and failed reaction by the regime to an information cascade is the one documented by Lohmann, around the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. The classic case of late and successful reaction by a regime is Tiananmen Square and, even there, the subsequent alteration of the Chinese state continues to be driven in part by the recognition that without continued economic improvement, the same forces that drove insurrection might return. Though the regime always holds most of the power, insurrections that take advantage of the dynamics of information cascades thus offer protesters both offensive and defensive capabilities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

It's an interesting debate, and both essays are worth reading.

That said, it's worth noting that both Morozov and Shirky here are focusing their commentary almost entirely on in-the-streets, down-with-dictators style political actions. Of course, politics involves a lot more than just political protests. Marching loudly in the streets of Tehran or crashing Moldova's capital building certainly catches attention. But narrowing in on that sliver of where tech meets politics seems to ignore an enormous universe of other stuff that matters, like using technology to help build civil society, empower social organizations, engage in the political process, advance intellectual arguments, create better options for young people, so on and so forth. (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

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