Digital Utopians, Party Poopers and Real Revolution

There have been some snickers of late at the timing of Evgeny Morozov’s new book, The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (good NY Times review here). The revolutions in the Middle East supposedly gave the lie to his criticism of cyberutopians and their hypocritical Western government backers. I must admit I was momentarily caught up in the snickering — Facebook, social networking and more generally, the amazing advances in communications technology played a huge role in the overthrowing of Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s regimes.

But two things have recently led me back to my fundamental sympathy with Morozov’s view (part of which I wrote about last year in one of my best-named blog posts ever, “Mao and the Facebook Panoptican“).

"My social network" by Luc Legay

One is the incomplete revolution in Libya, which has reminded us that although the Internet has made social networking more efficient than ever (it didn’t invent it, obviously), the price of change in violent systems will still be sweat, blood and sacrifice. And the Internet does not reduce complex history and politics — like that in Libya — into simple stories of good and evil that read like the Readers’ Digest version of Lord of the Rings (or worse).

Second is this short piece in Mother Jones about unabashed video game booster Jane McGonigal. The comments here from some of the notable cyperutopians are so patently, jaw-droppingly absurd that I re-realized how much we desperately need voices like Morozov’s. Take a brief look at this interview of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly (referenced in the MJ article). Or McGonigal on the power of video games:

“When every family in the remote villages of Africa, or in what today are the slums of India, or throughout Nicaragua—when they and everyone else in the world has access to The Long Game, that will mean greater access to education, culture, and economic opportunity as well.”

Point is, even if his timing is slightly off — through no fault of his own — a smart cynic like Morozov is essential to taking this ridiculousness down a notch. (HT to my pal grist.)

I leave you with an Outkast classic you may find relevant… or at least good music.

Mao and the Facebook Panopticon

Photo by Clemson on Flikr. Click for attribution.

I read this passage in a biography of Mao Zedong (yes, I am making my way through all the major historical figures) and started having nightmares about Facebook. This is from the early 1940s, when Mao was consolidating his base for war against the Nationalists. According to Mao: The Untold Story, the Party chairman interrogated vast swaths of his young recruits in order to instill in them feelings of submission and control, and to foster an atmosphere of deep mistrust, as friends informed on each other.

“One supreme accomplishment of the terror campaign was to squeeze out every drop of information about any link whatever with the Nationalists. Mao introduced a ‘Social Relationship’ form: ‘Tell everyone to write down every single social relationship of any kind [my emphasis].’ At the end of the campaign, the regime compiled a dossier on every Party member. The result was that Mao knew every channel the Nationalists might use to infiltrate in the forthcoming showdown. Indeed, during the civil war, while the Nationalists were penetrated like sieves, they had virtually zero success infiltrating the Communists. Mao had forged a machine that was virtually watertight.”

That blew my mind a little. Facebook could do for free what took Mao huge expense and organized brutality. It’s a Stasi/KGB/mukhabarat/CIA dream come true.

As this blog’s sidebars should prove, I love social media. But at its worst, can it be a voluntary Panopticon? Maybe the point is irrelevant in a mostly functioning democracy (actually, I don’t think it is), but certainly this historical perspective on state surveillance is relevant to all the arguments boosting social media in, ahem, more controlled atmospheres.

One thing’s for sure: no more pictures of any substance on Facebook for me.

Will Rwanda become East Africa’s WiFi hotspot?

This was the subject of my just-published report from Kigali, appearing on GlobalPost.

KIGALI, Rwanda — If your last exposure to this East African country was the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” you have some catching up to do.

In the 15 years since the genocide of 1994 brought Rwanda international notoriety, the country has been on a development tear. It is orderly and calm; this year, the World Bank ranked it as the top pro-business reformer in the world.

Now, Rwanda is attempting to position itself on the cutting edge of tech in East Africa. There are plans — none completed so far — to provide a network of fiber optic cables, citywide WiFi in the capital, and one laptop for every child in the country by 2020.

As President Paul Kagame puts it in a statement on the Rwanda Development Board’s website, “In Africa, we have missed both the agricultural and industrial revolutions and in Rwanda we are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution.”

Some foreigners in the capital scoff at the idea — Rwanda is a very poor country, and it’s still easier to get online in some neighboring countries.

But many other observers, both locally and internationally, think Rwanda may be on to something. Read more…