“Net Delusion” Review: Iran Revisited

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts reviewing the book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” by Evgeny Morozov. Here are the links to the first post, second post, and third post.

I just started reading Evgeny Morozov‘s new book The Net Delusion. I originally planned to just read the book through and review the whole thing (which I’ll still do), but after 50 pages I already have so many notes that I think it might be best to analyze the book in a series of posts, of which this is the first.

Those of you who are familiar with Evgeny’s rhetorical style know that it can be like a heat-seeking missile… effective but sometimes unnecessarily brutal. In some of these posts I come down pretty hard on Evgeny for this unnecessary roughness, yet I don’t want to mirror his behavior. So I suppose this is a disclaimer: I am not critiquing Evgeny’s ability but his rhetorical choices. And while this post is pretty harsh, later ones will be nicer.

As many reviewers before me have noted, this is an important and well-written book. It gives the best research so far into the extent of digital repression under authoritarian regimes, what Morozov calls “the dark side of Internet freedom.” Yet the book has weaknesses too, both in its rhetorical choices and its content.

I’d like to begin the discussion of these weaknesses and strengths, with Morozov’s analysis of the digital aspects of the post-election protests in Iran in 2009. In this chapter, entitled “The Google Doctrine,” Morozov makes an important choice. Instead of trying to explain the true role of the Internet in those protests, as Philip N. Howard did to excellent affect in a few well-researched pages in his book The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Morozov chooses his targets’ weakest argument – that it was a “Twitter Revolution” – and then successfully debunks this myth, a task that has already been achieved by other commentators and analysts. By choosing a rhetorical stance that will allow him to score easy points rather than truly elucidate an important case study of digital activism and repression, Morozov choose an analytical strategy that is rhetorically effective but journalistically lazy.

Morozov goes into great detail describing the eager adoption of the Twitter Revolution theory, quoting prominent talking heads in American media and laying particular blame at the feet of the Department of State in general and Jared Cohen, in particular, a member of the Policy Planning Staff who wrote the much-heralded and then much-ridiculed email to Twitter asking them to delay scheduled maintenance and keep their service going for the good of the revolution.

According to Morozov, Iran was unaware of the political dangers of social media until Cohen range the alarm. “Suddenly,” writes Morozov, “the Iranian authorities no longer saw the Internet as an engine of economic growth or as a way to spread the word of the prophet…. The Web presented an unambiguous threat that Iran’s enemies would be sure to exploit…. The Iranian authorities embarked on a digital purge of their opponents. ” Later in the chapter he goes further:

This was globalization at its worst: A simple email based on the premise that Twitter mattered in Iran, sent by an American diplomat in Washington to an American company in San Francisco, triggered a worldwide Internet panic and politicized all online activity, painting it in bright revolutionary colors and threatening to tighten online spaces and opportunities that were previously unregulated.

The argument that Jared Cohen alerted the Iranian government to digital activism or “triggered a worldwide Internet panic” seems far-feteched, especially given that Iran has practiced political censorship of Internet content since 2001 and Morozov himself has been chronicling digital repression around the world for years. However, this argument is important to the overall rhetorical aim of the book, to utterly delegitimize the State Department’s Internet freedom agenda. There are many legitimate criticisms to be made on this score, but blaming Jared Cohen (or even the State Department) for Iranian digital repression is not one of them. Why does Morozov overreach when he has so much fodder for stronger arguments?

Even though it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who initially enunciated the Internet freedom agenda in January 2010 and even though the White House stated publicly that Cohen’s email “wasn’t a directive of the Secretary of State, but rather was a low-level contact from someone who often talks to Twitter staff,” Morozov seems intent on making Cohen the State Department whipping boy and blaming him for the “digital purge” following the elections and for digital repression around the world.

A few pages later, after discussing a 2010 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences detailing the political implications of the Internet, Morozov states that “it’s hard not to see this as a direct response to the words and deeds of Jared Cohen.” This is even more outrageous than the Iran accusation. That the policy of China, which has the most sophisticated online censorship regime in the world, was significantly altered by Cohen’s email to Twitter seems unlikely. If anything it merely confirmed suspicions they already held about American technologies.

One of Morozov’s weaknesses is his fondness for ad hominem attack, and I think that is at work in the harsh criticism of Cohen. Rather than being based on empirical analysis, Morozov’s attacks seem personal. Unlike anyone else in the chapter, Morozov identifies Cohen’s relatively young age as a way to discredit him, yet Morozov is actually a year younger than Cohen. Does Morozov see Cohen, now Director of the new think tank Google Ideas, as a rival for up-and-coming intellectual phenom of digital politics? Regardless of his motives, when Morozov gets personal the quality of his reasoning suffers.

Yet the greatest flaw of the chapter is not his cheap shots, but the missed opportunity to explain how Internet activists really used the Internet, instead setting up a false syllogism:

  • Major Premise: Iran post-election digital activism = Twitter Revolution
  • Minor Premise: The Twitter Revolution is a myth
  • Conclusion: Iran post-election digital activism is a myth.

Yet Twitter was not the sum total of the Green Movement’s digital activism. As I noted earlier, Philip Howard describes the use of digital technologies by Iranian activists in great detail in the beginning of his book on digital dictatorship and democracy. However, since the book was published at the same time as Morozov’s, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he did not read Howard’s book before it was published.

Yet there are other sources of this information. Morozov references the work of Iranian Global Voices contributor Hamid Tehrani in debunking the Twitter Revolution myth, but does not reference Tehrani’s analysis of what digital technologies were used. Writing for DigiActive.org in 2009 Tehrani wrote:

With regard to the post-election protests, decisions are made centrally by Mousavi and Karoubi and their campaigns. When they take their decisions they communicate them in different ways. First, they publish them on their websites, for example Kalamhe and Ghalam news. Web 1.0 (as well as totally offline communication methods) are just as important as Web 2.0 (social media), though the latter is receiving for more attention.

Second, the reformist leaders use social networking systems to communicate these message. On Saturday Mir Hussein Mousavi‘s Facebook published the news that demonstration will be held today. Mousavi has more than 65,000 supporters in his Facebook group and every message can reach this army of people directly. Supporters were also asked to pass the message to others, implying that the leaders are deliberately making use of their supporters’ online and offline personal networks.

Morozov himself states that “poor understanding leads to poor policy” and excoriates both journalists and members of the US governments for their lack of understanding of digital repression which, he notes, can mean heavy consequences “where human lives are at stake”. Given the life-and-death context in which he places the issue, he also casts his own decision to go for the easy win, rather than elucidate the real role of digital technology in the uprising, in a moral light.

Later in the chapter Morozovs goes off attack mode, and his more even-handed claims are useful and important. He lists a series of key questions that the US government must answer in order to improve their Internet policy: “How should the West balance its sudden urge to promote democracy via the Internet with its existing commitments to other nondigital strategies for achieving the same objective…? What are the best ways of empowering digital activists without putting them at risk?” He also rightly calls out Facebook and Twitter for not signing on to the Global Network Initiative, an agreement by tech companies to behave in accordance with high standards of freedom of expression and privacy. His description of the Iranian government’s digital purge is well-researched and edifying.

Morozov adds most to our knowledge of digital activism and repression when he is acting in the role of a journalist and trying to offer constructive advice for reform. Yet in this chapter he seems to prefer writing witty barbs and scoring rhetorical points. It makes for entertaining reading, though much else is lost.

What Makes a Liberation (or Repression) Technology?

In my last post I presented a new framework (left) that places digital repression and digital activism along a continuum of tactical advantage. Here I’d like to build on that by identifying the characteristics of a liberation technology or a repression technology.

One of the things that the tactical framework makes clear is that many technologies (like Facebook) can benefit activists (by facilitating mobilization and collective action) and repressive governments (by facilitating surveillance and counter-strategy). An application is not fundamentally a liberation technology or repression technology, it depends on how it is used. Blending recent observations with social movement theory, I see four requirements for a technology to be a liberation technology:

1) It must transmit POLITICAL INFORMATION.

Philip N. Howard and I developed this idea while talking about an article he is writing. We were wondering what it is about the internets in China, North Korea, Cuba (and, to a lesser extent, Venzuela) that makes them relatively ineffective as liberation technologies.

The idea that the technology must transmit political information is a clear factoring limiting the liberation capacity of the Chinese internet in particular, which has a sophisticated filtering system that blocks political information generated outside the country and political content generated internally by Chinese citizens.

In order for the Internet to be a liberation technology in China, Chinese activists would need to find a way to access and distribute political information. The access issue is addressed by the many proxy and circumvention technologies used in (and in some cases created for) China, like Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Tor. The distribution challenge is met by the many homonyms and codewords for political speech on the Chinese Internet, like “grass-mud horse” (a profanity) and “river crab” (a cynical take on “harmony”). These words are used to sneak political meaning in through the back door of seemingly apolitical words.

2) It must be ACCESSIBLE to a large segment of the POPULATION.

North Korea and Cuba have a different strategy for limiting the liberation capacity of the internet: don’t let people use it. According to Harvard’s Open Net Initiative:

Government restrictions on online content and connectivity render the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) a virtual “black hole” in cyberspace…. Pyongyang has opted for an isolated, domestic intranet consisting of approximately thirty Web sites approved by the government and available only to a privileged minority.

Cuba has a similar though slightly more permissive strategy. Again from the Open Net Initiative:

Internet use is severely restricted in Cuba. A combination of Cuban government policy, the U.S. trade embargo, and personal economic limitations prevents the vast majority of Cuban citizens from ever accessing the Internet.

This trend is also visible in Venezuela, though for economic reasons rather than conscious political strategy. Says ONI:

Internet use is strongly concentrated among young, educated city residents, with… more than 60 percent of users coming from Caracas. Approximately 26.0 percent of Internet users log on daily. These users tend to be upper-class individuals using home connections for educational or work research and downloading.

Social movement theory tells us that a key requirement for effective collective action is a collective identity based on shared grievances. In order for these grievances to be aired and shared using the internet, a substantial portion of the population must have access to this medium. If internet use is limited to the elite, this group can be effectively be passivized and co-opted by the repressive regime using a “divide and conquer” strategy of patronage and special privileges.

UPDATE: Discussed this with Phil Howard yesterday and we decided on a more precise definition than “a large segment of the population.” Since social movement theory defines elite defection as key in bringing down authoritarian regimes, then it is this elite that would need to be connected via the technology, not

3) It must allow for EFFECTIVE UTILIZATION.

This is a fancy way of saying that it is not enough to be able to access an online (or mobile) application, that application must be functional. One of the most innovative censorship methods, used by Iran among others, is keeping the Internet on but choking off bandwidth so that loading and uploading rich content like images and videos is prohibitively slow.

4) It must allow for protection of PRIVACY.

One of the great benefits of social media to repressive regimes is that the public organizing that occurs on them is an excellent opportunity for surveillance of political opponents. For this reason, a liberation technology must allow for private un-traceable use to maximize activist safety and minimize surveillance capacity. A recent announcement that an https version of Facebook is now available in the Sudan is a step in the right direction.


If these are the requirements of a liberation technology, a repression technology requires the reverse. It is an application that does not permit the transmission of political information, allows access only to a small elite, is not fully functional, and maximizes the government’s capacity for surveillance. It is important to note that most digital technologies (like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the internet itself) started out as liberation technologies in that that are content-agnostic and designed for easy functionality (though with less respect for privacy). It take the explicit action of a repressive government to block (or, in the case of China, replace) these liberation technologies with ones that are apolitical, inaccessible, un-usable, and preventing anonymity.

In pursuing its Internet Freedom strategy, the US government (and other friends of liberation technology) should focus on ensuring that national internets have the four characteristics of transmissability of political information, broad access, usability, and privacy protections, rather than promoting internet access broadly-writ.

A New Framework for Digital Activism and Digital Repression

In Egypt today we are seeing the continuing digital saga of authoritarian governments vs. civil society activists. Egypt is a country with an extremely strong digital civil society, including high mobile phone penetration, an active blogosphere, and a history of Facebook campaigns that achieve real-world results, such as the 2008 General Strike and the “We are All Khaled Said” campaign. Yet a few days ago the government flipped the Internet “kill switch.” Not a single Egyptian ISP remains online and mobile phone networks are of limited use.

In the old discourse of digital activism, the cyber-optimists would point to the importance of the Internet in getting Egypt to where it is today: creating a shared awareness of shared grievances and building loose networks of Mubarak opponents that have strengthened the offline movement. Cyber-pessimists would point not only to the Egyptian government’s use of the kill switch, but also to how the government uses social media to track the actions and networks of dissidents.

Both sets of observations are true. Now we need a more nuanced framework for understanding the “cat and mouse” game of authoritarians vs. activists, based in the tactical reality of digital activism and social movements, not the ideological dichotomy of cyber-optimist vs. cyber-pessimist. Here’s a place to start:

Figure: Tactical Framework for Digital Technology Use in Authoritarian Regimes

Authoritarian Government Uses Tech to Their Own Advantage

The graphic above presents a taxonomy for understanding both digital activism and digital repression as part of a continuum, not a dichotomy. At the far left, we have cases in which authoritarian governments are using digital technology to their own advantage. There are few of these examples, the most prominent being instances of crowsourced oppression, like the 50 Cent Party in China, in which citizens are paid to leave pro-government comments in blogs and forums, and how the Iranian government posted photos of protesters online in the hopes that fellow citizens would help identify them.

Authoritarian Government Blocks Civil Society Tech Advantage

Moving to the right we see cases in which the government is blocking a civil society advantage provided by digital technology. There cases include censorship, blocking, and the “kill switch” and are far more common. Most authoritarian governments limit the effectiveness of digital activists by limiting their technology use, not be adopting their tools, as in the previous category. This is significant because it implies that in most cases of digital repression civil society, not governments, are given the greatest advantage by technology. The case of the Egyptian kill switch bears this out. If the Internet was of greater advantage to the Mubarak government they would have left it on. The fact that they turned it off indicates that they felt the Internet was of greater use to their civil society opponents.

Tech Useful to Both Authoritarians and Civil Society

In the current dichotomy of cyber-pessimist vs. cyber-optimist, the fact that technology can benefit both authoritarian governments and civil society is often overlooked because each side wants to claim the case as their own. The best example here is that social platforms like Facebook and Twitter that help activists to air grievances and mobilize, but also help authoritarian governments to track these activities, since they are being broadcast in public. In authoritarian regimes, most digital activism cases fall into this category because of this dual nature of public social media.

Civil Society Blocks Authoritarian Tech Advantage

Moving into the arena of civil society advantage, we have cases in which civil society is successfully blocking an advantage that technology provides to authoritarian governments. The key example here is the use of proxy servers and other circumvention and anonymization technology to block the government’s ability to use the Internet to track the actions of its opponents online. Because of the technical knowledge required, only a minority of those censored online will evade that censorship, making Internet censorship a powerful tool of authoritarians.

Civil Society Uses Tech to Their Own Advantage

The number of cases in this category depends greatly on how effective an authoritarian regime is at online surveillance and censorship. If a regime is good at watching its citizens online, then most activist uses of social media – blogging about shared grievances, tweeting information not covered by state-owed media, mobilizing through Facebook groups – can also benefit the regime by providing an opportunity for surveillance. In the most extreme cases, censorship effectively blocks activist content from even getting online. China has moderators that delete sensitive messages from online forums, countries like Egypt and Iran have turned off the Internet in times of crisis, and North Korea simply refuses to provide internet access to its citizens. Yet choosing between full censorship and a more permissive surveillance policy poses a challenge to authoritarians. While censorship will make it more difficult for citizens to develop a shared awareness of shared grievances, it also pushes dissidents underground, where they are harder to track. Is it better to allow dissidents to use social media for the purposes of tracking them or better to completely block their access out of fear their ideas might spread? This is a real dilemma for authoritarian regimes.

This framework does not resolve the question for whether authoritarians or activists are winning the digital battle, but it does provide a framework for analysis that recognizes the realities of digital activism and digital repression, and the continuum on which their actions are based. The challenge now is to look at how frequently each type of action occurs and to what effect. The Global Digital Activism Data Set will fill in many of the cases on the right side of the continuum. A Global Repression Data Set in needed to fill in the cases on the left.

It Could Happen To You

In a world of insta-analysis that demands predictions, many commentators looked at the Tunisian revolution and argued that it was an isolated affair, and that structural factors would prevent the rest of the Arab states from suffering similar fates. In a particularly incoherent article containing some gobbledygook about the Roman Empire in the New York Times, primordialist du jour Robert D. Kaplan argued that the unrest was unlikely to spread to Cairo and beyond and plainly stated his admiration for dictators like the late Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia (who he hilariously referred to as “one of the lesser-known Great Men of the twentieth century”). The American political class’s love affair with cooperative dictators is obviously alive and quite well. This journalist consensus reflects what I consider to be an increasingly smug agreement in American political science about the entrenched nature of authoritarian rule in the Middle East – a consensus that both empties social science of any moral obligations, and gives license to the political class to continue dealing with reprehensible tyrants as if they will be around forever.

In any case, last week’s predictions are moot, as the unrest has now demonstrably spread to Egypt (and to Yemen, where I will defer to others). The regime is frightened enough that it has reportedly shut down the Internet across Egypt. And this is not just Cairo – credible reports are rolling in that the regime may be losing control in places like Sallum, on the border with Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood, probably the most organized opposition force in the country, has finally joined the fray and promised to join in demonstrations after Friday prayers tomorrow, whose slogan is now, according to al-Masry al-Youm, “No Retreat and No Surrender” (AR). The unrest has its own unique Egyptian causes, most notably a longstanding campaign against police brutality and torture that intensified with the Khaled Said campaign, but it is also undeniably influenced by events in Tunisia.

There is no way to know what role digital technologies have played in the unrest, but certainly it appears that people are relying on them for coordination. We are privy to video footage of the kind that would not have been possible ten years ago, like this already-iconic video of a single protester bravely castrating a water gun being fired on him by cowards in an armored vehicle. Shutting down the Internet may interfere with Egyptians’ sense that the unrest is national, which is where international activism can play a role by relaying reports from contacts inside Egypt. The question is – will they shut down the mobile networks too? Unless they do, the intrepid will manage to ensure that the Tweet goes on.

I would personally like to take a break from trying to parse the events and wish my friends in Egypt safety and good luck. I was lucky enough to meet dozens of kind, bighearted people during my research in Egypt, earnest and thoughtful young people who yearned for a voice, and for democratic change, many of whom had been to prison for the crime of free expression. They deserve better, and I am in awe of their courage. I certainly hope that if nothing else, we refuse to continue countenancing the sacrifice of their rights at the altar of geostrategy.

Rethinking Social Media

Today’s web is social, we all know that. But it may be more social than we think. Some platforms, like Facebook, are obviously social: we see the group of peers who are creating our experience through content creation or recommendations. Other platforms, like Google search, are “phantom social” – you don’t see the group of peers that have created your experience, but they are there nonetheless.

Let’s start with the obviously social: Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, blogs, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit, Meetup, 4chan, YouTube…. Whether you are looking at a restaurant review, a photo, a video, or a post, you know who has written or created it. The creator has an identity, even if it is just an online identity. You are constantly aware that your experience is being created by your peers.

Phantom social applications like Google Search or Cleverbot are more tricky. It may seem that you are interacting with a computer, but the responses you receive are still created by your peers, you just don’t see them. In the case of Google Search, the ranking of a search result is determined by the number of incoming links. Who creates those all those links? Other people. Notice how Google can predict possible queries as you type? Again, those suggestions are gleaned from other people’s common searches. And instant search? You get the idea. Each Google Search is made possible by millions of user actions collected and crunched by Google algorithms, yet few of us think of a search as a social activity.

Cleverbot is an application that allows you to carry out a text chat with a computerized personality. It seems the archetypal anti-social online experience: talking to a computer. Yet Cleverbot is also phantom social. According to Wikipedia:

Cleverbot differs from traditional chatterbots in that the user is not holding a conversation with a bot that directly responds to entered text. Instead, when the user enters text, the algorithm selects previously entered phrases from its database of 20 million conversations. It has been claimed that, “talking to Cleverbot is a little like talking with the collective community of the internet.”

Then there are the hybrids, platforms that have some features where peers are visible and some features where peer input is hidden and you seem to be interacting with a machine. The classic example here is online shopping sites like Amazon and Overstock.com, which incorporate user reviews (visible peers) along with product recommendations and star ratings (phantom peers). All three are based on the input, buying, and browsing patterns of other users. All three are social.

What does this mean? It means the web is a lot more social than we think. We know that interacting with hundreds of friends on Facebook or thousands of followers on Twitter is social , but when we are interacting with millions through an algorithm we forget the social aspect. Whether through a email from Mom or a recommendation gleaned from millions of strangers, the web is becoming an ever more elegant medium for meaningful human interaction.

Power in a Centerless World

“All roads lead to Rome”: in antiquity centrality was a measure of power. The power of Rome, the global empire of its time, was both revealed and reinforced by its ability to make itself the center of that world. But the new infrastructure of the digital age flouts centrality. On the Internet, which has no center, all roads do not lead to a single destination, all roads lead everywhere.

Yet power still exists. What will be the basis for power in a centerless world? Power will come from sensemaking, from transmitting, enhancing, or blocking information. To continue the metaphor of the road, we can define the sources of power in the networked age as sign posts, other travelers, and road blocks.

Sign Posts – The Credibility of Institutions: American highways are marked out in ubiquitous white-lettered green signs. We don’t know exactly what individual put them up, but we know the individual was a representative of a governmental institution. We trust the government – at least so far as road signs go – so we trust the sign.

There are relatively few examples kinds of this kind of traditional, institutional power on the Internet, and the ones that exist are simply digital manifestations of offline institutions. You probably trust the visa information on the State Department web site and headlines at NYTimes.com, but there is little that is networked about these sites. Like GPS-enabled cars they are nominally part of the digital age, but are really vestiges of an earlier time.

Other Travelers – The Credibility of Peers: When I was living in India, my boyfriend and I made a three-hour journey exclusively by asking directions of people along the side of the road. We reached our destination, but this is an extremely unusual way of navigating the physical world. On the Internet it is common. We seek our facts from peers on Wikipedia, recommendations from peers on Yelp. Even the system of sign posts on the Internet – called the Domain Name System, is maintained by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit corporation based in Marina del Rey, California, which defines online protocols through a consensus process. Systems that grant power to peers are inherently consensual and negotiable since peers do not have uncontested power over one another. They are democratic.

Road Blocks – The Use of Force: Yet the networked world will not be a utopia. There are those who will still wish to impose their will on others. In many countries policemen, misusing the power that the state has granted them, set up road blocks to extort money from motorists. Yet on the Internet this power is not limited to traditional institutions of power. Yes, China has a very sophisticated system of online censorship and surveillance, but roving bandits from 4chan can also attack and block information. The use of digital force has been democratized, but this does not mean it is more just.

Power in a centerless world will be distributed more democratically, but also more chaotically. New rules will need to be created, but it is the users who will need to create and enforce them.

Too Early to Discount Internet’s Democratizing Effects

There is little empirical research on the effects of digital technology on politics, so the article on the democratic effects of the Internet in the International Journal of Communication by Iowa State University’s Jacob Groshek is a welcome addition to the field, though Groshek’s conclusions may be premature.

The paper (PDF), ably summarized on Patrick Meier’s iRevolution blog, used a time series of 72 countries, beginning in 1946 or 1954 and ending in 2003. Groshek generated statistically-forecasted democracy values for each country using pre-Internet indicators from the 40 years before 1994. The actual democracy scores of each country for the years 1994 to 2003 were then compared to the forecasted value. In most countries, the presence of the Internet did not correlate to a level of democracy greater that the forecasted value. According to Groshek:

These results are consistent even in countries where the Internet was more widely diffused, which suggests that Internet diffusion was not a specific causal mechanism of national-level democratic growth during the timeframe analyzed. Thus, based on the results of the 72 countries reported here, the diffusion of the Internet should not be considered a democratic panacea, but rather a component of contemporary democratization processes….

He acknowledges that “this finding, of course, does not rule out the possibility that there may be national-level democratic effects related to Internet diffusion in the future….”

That future may be now. According to the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS), the Meta-Activism Project’s open collection of 1,005 digital activism cases from 114 countries, real growth in the use of digital technology for campaigning and public political speech did not see a significant increase until 2006. While part of this jump may be due to increased reporting of digital activism, rather than increase frequency (the citizen media aggregator Global Voices Online was born the year before) , anecdotal evidence also supports the conclusion that online political activism did not come into its own until after 2003. The major social media platforms used for activism, like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), were founded after that date. In addition, even in advanced democracies like the United States, political action online began in the mid-200o’s, with key expansions during the 2004 presidential election (remember Howard Dean meet-ups?), the rise of flash-mobs in 2003 and the international anti-FARC rallies organized on Facebook in 2008.

Of course, it is possible that the Internet could somehow affect democracy through non-political activities, like increasing economic development and the rise of a middle class, but it seems pre-mature to claim that Internet diffusion does not correlate with democratic growth if the period of greatest online political action is excluded. Clay Shirky makes a good point in his article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, stating that we are not likely to see the the democratizing effects of the Internet in the short term, but rather that “the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months.” It is too early to discount the Internet, since its effects are just beginning to be felt.

Architecture of the Networked Age

While at home in New Jersey for the Christmas holiday I happened to pick up my Mom’s copy of Archaeology magazine and read an article on an exhibition of monumental Olmec sculptures. The heads, which were created 1400-400 BC, depict the faces of the Mexican civilization’s rulers. Why create such large representations of power? Because physical line of sight was the only way to view these images and larger physical presence represented greater power.

Three thousand years later, monuments of power were still viewed “in situ”. For example, the well-known Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon in 1806 to commemorate those who died in his wars, and in the revolution. Situated in the center of the capital city, the monument would have drawn maximum attention. Unlike with the Olmec heads, citizens are commemorated in the monument, but only as tools of Napoleon’s imperial ambition.

A hundred years later, at the beginning of the broadcast age, the architecture of power could be created for broadcast. The Triumph of the Will, Hitler’s grand propaganda film of 1934, used a modern style of classical architecture and phalanxes of adoring citizens to project Nazi power. In the vast crowd scenes of the film (still above), crowds of citizens extend the scale of boulevards and stadiums but individual identity is effaced by uniforms and synchronized movements so the only qualities conveyed are military discipline and devotion to the fascist regime.

What will the architecture of power of the networked age look like? It is in many ways too early to tell, but the 2010 monumental human sculptures created for – but not by – the global environmental organization 350.org give a glimpse of the future. Meant to convey the importance of climate change mitigation and environment protection, the photos were designed and carried out by volunteers around the world. Some, like the Indian elephant above, do use human beings as part of their architecture, but the image conveys the environmental values of the volunteers, not one imposed from above.

Also, rather than being disseminated through traditional broadcast media, the images are social media-friendly, posted on Flickr with a Creative Commons license to facilitate sharing. These images are not designed to be viewed in the physical site of their creation. In fact, they could only be seen in their entirety from the air. They are also imperament, created only to be captured in a digital image that can be shared through the network. The original “monument” may last no more than a few hours.

The transition of monumental architectural depictions of power from leader focus to citizen focus, from authority to self-determination, from permanence to impermanence, and from physical to virtual viewing is another illustration how the digital network is changing human society.

Politics, Sex, and God in Google Books

Earlier this week Google launched a powerful tool for visualizing cultural trends. The modestly-named Books Ngram Viewer allows you to search the frequency of any word in the 5.2-million strong Google Books database, reaching back to 1800. Earlier this week Read Write Web published a post of 10 fascinating word graphs created using the application. Here are three more:

War, Peace, Democracy

The first graph shows the frequency of the words “war,” “peace,” and “democracy” since 1800. Not surprisingly, the biggest peaks for war occur during World War I and World War II. Each Everest of writing on war is accompanied by a smaller hillock of writing on peace, slightly larger during WWI than WWII. What is interesting here is how writing about democracy tracks writing about war and peace during these great conflicts, with the greater frequency occurring during World War II. Why would this be? My guess is these books fall into the “why we fight” category, reinforcing the cultural values of the English-speaking countries in an effort to motivate the fight against fascism and communism, respectively.

Gay, Queer, Homosexual

The database also reveals cultural trends, including changes in perception of LGBT people. In the beginning of the twentieth century, queer slowly grew as a derogatory term The term gay also began to be applied to people who were not in committed heterosexual relationships, including promiscuous straight women. These terms decreased in use in the 1940’s and 50’s as the term homosexual gained prominence. This medicalization of LGBT identity was strengthened by the publication of the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952 by the National Institute of Mental Health, in which homosexuality was included as a disorder. This trend continued into the early 1980’s, when the gay rights movements began to emerge and gained momentum at the end of that decade due in large part to the pressing health crisis of AIDS. Since then, the term gay has sky-rocketed in usage, while the usage of the term homosexual has tailed off, in relative terms. The term queer has also, to a lesser extent, been re-claimed.


The final graph I want to show is simply that of the precipitous decline of instances of the word God in English language books, which one can take as a proxy for the decline in religiosity. Far from being a recent occurrence, by this measure religion has been on the decline in the English-speaking world since the mid-nineteenth century, decreasing throughout the Industrial Revolution and reaching its current level around 1920. Even the recent periods of social conservatism in the 1950’s and social liberalism in the 1960’s are mere hiccups in the general decline of religion in this part of the world. We should be aware, at least in the US, that while religious conservatism may seem to be gaining prominence, it is a trend within a basically secular society.

The Effects of Starfish on Spiders

Note: This is cross-posted from techPresident, albeit with a new title.

A few weeks ago, powerful corporations like Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal weren’t very concerned with the hacktivists and pranksters on 4chan. Now, thanks to the tactical success of Operation Payback‘s DDoS attacks, they are. The U.S. government also has its own problems with networked activists. After massive leaks of documents on the Iraq and Afghan wars and diplomatic cables from around the world, Wikileaks has demonstrated that it is a formidable threat to American legitimacy and power.

These are but two recent examples of how decentralized digital networks (starfish) can have dramatic effects on centralized hierarchies (spiders). However, these two alternative structures of human organization can interact in a variety of ways, both mutually beneficial and destructive. Below is a typology of how networks affect hierarchies in the digital world. In their interactions with hierarchies, members of networks can act in the following roles.


1) Deputies: Hierarchy sets agenda, network follows (maximum hierarchical control)

examples: Guardian crowdsources audit of MP expenses, Obama campaign coordinates supporter house parties through MyBarackObama

2) Amplifiers: Network helps hierarchy’s content go viral or network remixes hierarchy’s content, which goes viral

examples: Old Spice Guy videos, Beyonce “Put a Ring on it” fan videos, “tell a friend” buttons

3) Autonomous Allies: Network self-organizing advances hierarchy’s goals, though hierarchy does not direct network’s actions

examples: Obama supporters self-organize through listservs, Daily Kos community supports Ned Lamont, It Gets Better campaign


4) Competitors: Network spreads content that competes for attention and authority with hierarchy’s content (both original and maliciously remixed content)

examples: Wikipedia, lolcats, “Obama’s a Muslim” viral emails, Hillary Clinton 1984 parody video

5) Pirates: Content created by hierarchy, taken by network

examples: Napster, Pirate Bay, BitTorrent, online news scrapers, Wikileaks

6) Attackers: Direct attack on hierarchy by network (mostly through DDoS)

examples: Operation Payback, criminal DDoS “hold-ups”, Pro-Zapatista FloodNet

7) Gatekeepers: Hierarchy no longer the default, network refuses hierarchy access to institutions (maximum network control)

examples: Wikipedia blocks out Scientology

Networks and hierarchies are currently locked in a struggle for power over a range of human endeavors, from politics to business to the arts. However, there are a range of possible outcomes, from continued hierarchical dominance to a new network dominance and from cooperation to vicious competition. The outcome of this struggle will be determined by the members of both institutions. The only outcome that now seems unlikely is for the power of networks to disappear.

Mary Joyce is the founder of The Meta-Activism Project.

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