The Problem with Digital Activism Debate

I’d like to call attention to the disturbing mistreatment of two of the most important intellectuals in the field of digital activism: Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov. I know Evgeny better than I know Clay, but both seem like nice guys who are honestly trying to quantify the effects of the Internet on political power and activism around the world. So why are they constantly being put into the ring and asked to fight each other? I refer not only to their recent debate on, but also to the multiple round bout in Prospect magazine a few months ago.

Scholar/activist Patrick Meier has already called for an end to the violence, bemoaning the preponderance of “anecdotal ping-pong” and “rapid-fire debate” over rigorous analysis of comparable claims. Even Clay Shirky seems to be a bit tired of the entertaining yet inconclusive debate between optimists and pessimists in the field. He begins the debate by saying, “Evgeny, I think this may be a frustrating hour.”

Though I have heard neither Clay nor Evgeny express this publicly, I also would not be surprised if they are a little bit annoyed by how this optimist/pessimist debate pidgeon-holes them as intellectuals and thus also paints their ideas with the damning brush of bias. Instead of agreeing to these public cage matches, I wish Evgeny and Clay would both focus on an area they agree on:

“We are currently facing a huge intellectual void with the regards to the Internet’s impact on global politics…. We do need a new theory to guide us through all of this, for old theories are no good. ”
-Evgeny Morozov

“Yes, I agree with that.”
-Clay Shirky

Since both agree that there is little foundational knowledge in the field of digital activism, I wish they would join the effort for rigorous analysis and provable claims. While it might be less entertaining than an unwinnable battle of wits, it would be of more value to digital activists. Both Clay and Evgeny have great rhetorical and intellectual gifts, and to use them for Crossfire-style political theater is a disservice to the field they both claim to have an interest in building.

One thought on “The Problem with Digital Activism Debate

  1. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for this post. Yes, we do need new theories. But Evgeny and Clay ignore the fact that they need empirical data to test their new theories. The lack of such data explains the endless anecdotal ping pong. We need to take lessons from what other fields of study have done during their early days: data development, ie, coding data sets. The huge intellectual void in this debate will continue as long as we have no qualitative and quantitative data to draw on.


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