Two approaches to debates on technology and democracy: Evgeny Morozov

On Dec. 1, Evgeny Morozov visiting scholar at CDDRL's Program on Liberation Technology delivered a seminar on the current state of the Internet and the democracy debate after the Arab Spring. Morozov argued that there are two distinct approaches in the debates around technology and democracy: instrumentalist and ecological. The instrumentalist position holds that the Internet is just a neutral tool - an instrument and amplifier - that can be used for both good and bad. The key determining factor is how people use it. The argument is that if the Internet were not available, protestors would use another tool. This view is supported by Mark Zuckerberg who argued that, “Whatever technology they may or may not have used was neither a necessary nor sufficient cause for getting to the outcome.” Malcolm Gladwell further argues that, “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other.” Morozov argued that there are some limitations to this perspective. He suggested that the instrumentalist position knows how to deal with assessing the effectiveness of protests, but what about assessing the likelihood of protests? The Internet helps to make protests more efficient but due to the role of slacktivism, it also can decrease the likelihood of protests taking place.

The ecological position, according to Morozov has a more nuanced position on technology. It describes the affect that technology has on the whole ecology: the actors, the incentives and the institutions. The Internet is seen not just as a tool but also as a means of transforming both the environment where politics happens and those who participate in politics. A possible long-term effect is that in authoritarian regimes, the Internet may be creating a new, digital, networked public sphere. Marc Lynch suggests that, “The strongest case for the fundamentally transformative effects of the new media may lie in the general emergence of a public sphere capable of eroding the ability of states to monopolize information and argument, of pushing for transparency and accountability and of facilitating new networks across society.”

Morozov suggested that we should not over-estimate the role that is played by the Internet. He suggested, “If a tree falls in a forest and everybody tweets about it, it may not mean that the tweets caused the tree to fall.” For example, Morozov argued that sometimes the system is almost dead when people start protesting. It is not that the protestors actually caused the system to fall. Morozov further questioned whether the Internet is facilitating the emergence of decentralized and leaderless political structures.

In addressing the Internet Freedom agenda, Morozov stressed the following points to policymakers:

  • Don't listen to Internet experts, focus on regional experts instead to understand environment and ecology.
  • The agenda needs to acknowledge that most work needs to happen at home to regulate surveillance, censorship software, and preserve online anonymity. Change doesn't need to come from autocratic governments, as that misses priorities.

Morozov is the author of ‘Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom’ and is a visiting scholar with the Program on Liberation Technology at CDDRL.