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The internet society – time to get real

September 23, 2009 by
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

The internet is neither neutral nor inherently liberating. It operates in the context of existing social conventions and power structures. Its impact is real but often subtle and unexpected.

Yesterday we had a fascinating event with Evgeny Morozov, a US based expert on how political regimes use technology. Contradicting the lazy cyber utopianism of many politicians and commentators, he showed how authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran are using the internet as a tool of reaction and repression. From Russia’s experiments with e-consultation, to the Iranian and Chinese regimes using crowd sourcing to identify dissidents, to the use by various regimes (including Israel) of private companies to manipulate online polls and Google searches, bad people in high places are proving as good at using the internet as good people blogging for freedom from their basements. Indeed, these regimes have been as good at using the internet to foster nationalism and pro-regime extremism among the young as the opposition have at mobilising protest.

Morozov also questioned the idea that the internet encourages democratic engagement showing, for example, that Chinese young people are even more likely than those in the West to use the internet primarily for entertainment (adult or otherwise). It is as much a new opium for the people as a catalyst for democratic awakening.

By coincidence, just before Evgeny’s talk, I had a fascinating meeting with Matt Locke (FRSA) who makes up half the tiny but brilliant team at C4 commissioning multimedia youth content. He has some very interesting insights about how young people operate online and I am hoping we can get him to the Society soon to discuss the pros and cons of trying to encourage young people into more creative and constructive online engagement.

Then, this morning, I read a Guardian piece by Jon Henley which suggested that a large part of the explanation for the current crop of court cases and press stories involving teacher-pupil relationships is the way that remote communication (through SMS, e-mailing and social networking) had enabled much more contact (much of it unwelcome) out of school hours.

The web is changing culture, relationships and organisations. Its effects are real and important. Sometimes they are good and sometimes not. The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.



  • Mike Amos-Simpson

    I think its time to move away from the concept of the web being ‘virtual’ – it’s a part of the ‘real world’, made up of people doing real life things like communicating with each other.

    I agree very much with your last paragraph and it’s very important that we look at how being so connected will affect society – particularly with regard to education and how we best prepare young people for what society is likely to be in a few years time (impossible as that sounds!)

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Mike. Looks like everyone agrees with Evgeny’s reality check.

  • Joe Nutt

    I’m in total agreement with Mike and this is precisely why I have been trying so hard (for some years now!) to wake schools and teachers up to the ravings and even damaging lunacies of the techno-zealots, who are the ones really driving the entire educational transformation agenda.

    Driven by an adolescent belief that all new technology is “cool” (the word they actually use!) they never reflect for a moment on what the impact on real children might be, something every professional teacher would do instinctively.

    • matthewtaylor

      Well said Joe

  • Ned Thistlethwaite

    Evgeny Morozov was very interesting indeed.
    I now want to re-read ‘1227: Treatise on Nomadology; The War Machine’, from Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. Pretty heavy going, but its ideas kept coming into my head during yesterday’s talk. Particularly with regard the ‘colonization’ of the internet by big trundling hierarchies like the state…

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Ned. When you’ve reread it maybe you can pick out the best bits for me!

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  • Tom Bilson

    Evgeny’s talk caused me to reflect on the ‘romanticisation’ of the web, and whether we will look back on a golden, innocent period – a real or imagined back story – when search engines were apparently neutral and objective, corporates appeared suspicious, and both publishers and audiences took the medium at face value?

    • matthewtaylor

      Interesting Tom. The question – which we debated at the session with Evgeny – is whether the arms race between states and citizens, corporations and activists etc will ever be won? The value of Evgeny’s talk was to show how this race is much more evenly matched than the cyber utopians would have us think.

  • Tom

    “The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.”

    The amazing thing about the net is that it can simultaneously achieve all of the above.

    History shows us that any technology, in the wrong hands, leads to bad things. That’s why the good people of the net have to play a their role in protecting their online freedoms in the nasty old real world.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Tom. Great to have you commenting and, of course, I agree.

      Boing boing

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  • John McTernan

    Whatever your view of the current Israeli government they have been democratically elected. They are not a regime. The use of such politically and emotionally loaded language is dangerous.

    • matthewtaylor

      Fair enough John. But this is still an example of a powerful state using ts resources to manpulate the web. As such it is more evidence against the veiw that the internet is inherently a force for democratisation

  • William Shaw

    By pure coincidence, the day after Evgeney Morozov I went to hear Andrew Keen give an equally dystopian view of the internet. As someone whose seen a number of my print journalist colleagues simply fall off the edge of the map in the last twelve months, I can at times get quite carried away with the idea that it destroys more than it creates.

    The internet grew out of the same North Californian culture that gave us The Whole Earth Catlog, and it’s not surprising that such utopianism gets some people’s backs up. But it is time to move beyond that and see what the web is really doing, rather than what we hope or fear it’s doing.

    I’m obviously interested in what that means to the arts, and oddly enough, Keen’s talk chimed with what I believe; that though it means that the arts are going to have to change the way they go about things there are some positives that are kind of conterintuitive. I just blogged about it on the RSA Arts and Ecology blog.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks William. This is certainly something we should keep returning to at the Society

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  • carl allen

    The sword of information technology

    The art of the internet

    The word in the sword.

  • Martin Banks

    You can watch Evgeny on this TED talk

    I don’t know if this content is radically different to the talk he gave to the RSA, but I must say that I was surprised how different it was to that which I had imagined from reading your article.

    He mentions a political case of death in custody from China where 35,000 critical comments were placed on one blog within hours. The Chinese government overcame this by inviting bloggers to tour the prison facility.

    Given the sort of inhumanity that has been practised on dissidents by the Peoples Republic in the past, I would argue that this kind of spoils his own argument.

    He thinks that government sponsored astroturfers are the despot’s answer to blogging and social networking. Truly the web is awash with astroturfers plugging consumer goods, fashion items and political viewpoints, but in most political blogs, the astroturfer generally gets their argument knocked over and then has to creep back under a new pseudonym. I am certain that astroturfers cannot dominate a big blog/forum since they would be hugely outnumbered by *real* people.

  • Terry Freedman

    Very interesting blog post, Matthew. I especially like the conclusion. Although Morozov focused mainly on the activities of certain regimes, I’m not convinced that everything in our own garden is rosy. It seems to me that the key issue arising from such discussion, from an educational point of view, is how do we help young people learn to differentiate between who and what is genuine on the internet, and who or what isn’t?

    In case anyone is interested, I’ve written my own (education-based) response to the talk here:

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  • anike
  • Marc Gosschalk

    Matthew, you say that the study of the internet’s real impact on real lives is important. I couldn’t agree more, which is why I’m on a mission to make people like yourself aware of the possibilities for social research made available by online data companies like the one I work for. As luck would have it, it just so happens that I believe I’m working for the pick of the bunch.

    Put another way, here’s a thinker for you: Let’s say you were able to collect the past and future activity of everyone’s online activity – what they were watching, reading, exposed to, buying, posting about etc – into one big database, which even linked each individual’s complete trail of activity to that person’s demographic group. What question would you seek to answer?

    We have this data on 100,000 people in the UK, 2million people worldwide. Whether you like the thought of that or not, that’s a database just waiting to be searched for answers that matter.

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