The web is not a panacea.
Whether you’re a democrat or a republican, I would hope that you can look at the US invasion of Iraq with analytical detachment, and as such, I believe it is both fair and relevant to identify President Bush as having a crusader’s mentality. For better or worse, I happen to think he legitimately believed that the relatively simple job of toppling Saddam Hussein would lead to democracy flourishing like flowers in fresh soil, and this is why he failed to heed voices warning of events that ultimately came to pass. I raise the subject not to rehash criticism of that administration but to suggest that we might be wary of leaders, political or commercial, bearing panaceas. And that brings us to this article from last week’s Guardian, an extraction from the book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, co-authored by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, Google’s Executive Chairman and Director of Google Ideas, respectively. Ominously titled Web censorship: the net is closing in, the excerpt is ostensibly a warning against state-run censorship of the internet in nations already known to be deficient in the civil liberties department. And while some of the analyses and predictions are thought-provoking, the underlying premises and ultimate purpose of the article inspire a frisson similar to the one I felt the day Dick Cheney said, “I believe we’ll be greeted as liberators…” And then?
The assumption of the piece is that an “open” internet breeds democratic reform but that balkanization through state censorship will fulfill this odd prediction: “What started as the world wide web will begin to look more like the world itself, full of internal divisions and divergent interests,” write Schmidt and Cohen. Really? Divergent interests, you say? Even in the era of Googletopia, diversity will persist and result in cultural divisions ranging from benign philosophical differences to sectarian violence, tribal warlords, and inhumane states? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the global, free flow of information, if it’s possible to maintain the infrastructure, but if you think American exceptionalism can be blindly arrogant at times, what Schmidt and Cohen are selling, techno-exceptionalism if you will, is something potentially more insidious.
What President Bush believed we could do with a taste of democracy, Schmidt and Cohen seem to believe can be done with information technology. In fact the assumption of all techno-utopian views tends to treat information as though, if left pure, it can only be used one way and ultimately for the greater good. Just looking within our own already-free society, it’s pretty clear that “information” isn’t even necessarily information. An American in Idaho can be indoctrinated to jihad via YouTube without setting foot in a Mosque, let alone the Middle East. Authorities estimate an 800% increase in domestic extremism over the last decade, and guess how these groups connect with one another. The design of Web 2.0 can be a terrible tool for data quality because it favors the crowd, favors what’s popular (i.e. trending), and is built almost exclusively on an economy of ad impressions, which means the money doesn’t need to promote a well-researched article about Syria in favor of page views on GirlsinYogaPants.com. So, the web already does “look like the world itself,” even without government imposed balkanization, and the world just might continue to be as complexly imperfect, brilliant, and idiotic as it ever was despite the record-breaking views of Gagnam Style.
Schmidt and Cohen write about “walled gardens,” which is tech-speak for limited web environments that can be relatively benign or insidiously watched by state or corporate entities. Facebook is a walled garden that hundreds of millions of us use daily, and it is a pretty good example of voluntary disconnection that commands a substantial amount of our web-based attention here in freedom-loving USA. After all, isn’t Facebook something of an expanded version of social cliques that have formed naturally for centuries without technology’s assistance? Other than knowing what friends and loved ones are up to, which is nice, I would argue that using a walled garden like Facebook for information is simply bestowing the role of curator to personal acquaintances whose “filters” we trust in a given context.
Of course, the more narrow that context happens to be, if you and your friends share some extreme view like American law needs more Old Testament in it, the walls in your garden will naturally close in without any help from a state supervisor. The web can be a tool for expanding one’s world view, but it is very often an even more powerful tool for substantiating pre-existing biases. So it is a naive evangelist who believes that the web is somehow the new “city on a hill” (speaking of the Bible). Thus, Schmidt and Cohen begin to sound a bit like the digital age incarnation of Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop, vowing to establish a foothold for the gospel whence enlightenment shall blossom, while glossing over the inherent imperialism in the enterprise.
No, I don’t want to see Iran build a “halal internet,” which would be its own version of the “great firewall of China,” but I have to question the motives of Google executives implying that this is the fulcrum on which the fate of that nation balances. Iran managed to become the best educated, most progressive-leaning country in the Middle East before the Internet, and the forces that stand as a barrier to democratic reform are likely not due to a lack of available information or even contact with the outside world. We might just have to accept that Iran’s fate is not entirely ours to determine and that it’s a segment of the market Google doesn’t get to own. Yet. Moreover, with the article’s final, dire words that an Iranian wall would “change the internet as we know it,” are we meant to infer that the censorship itself might spread to us and our fellow democratic societies? Certainly, this is the belief among many out there, and it is bizarre to say the least when my fellow progressives put more faith in a multi-billion-dollar corporation to protect free expression than they do in one another.
But that’s the sleight of hand, isn’t it? The masters of the web have convinced people that free expression hardly existed without this technology, while outside the walled gardens we find an illusion of an open web that is actually more circumscribed than many realize. Search results aren’t based on pure, boolean logic but are based on a number of factors ranging from paid positions to data mining us users, so Google algorithms can “help” us find what they assume we’re looking for. Or as a default, it seems to want to find what some seventeen year-old boy is looking for, which might explain why a search on the word “admiral” yields the top suggestion Ackbar. And, of course, Wikipedia comes with everything. Meanwhile, as Google pursues an agenda of consuming and monetizing every bit of data in human experience, violating privacy, trampling on intellectual property rights, and from time to time, just being evil, this one-world technological evangelism pushes us toward the day when we finally vest in a corporation the power of a state and the Information Age becomes a true Tower of Babel. And it will be the well-meaning progressives who helped us do it.
If I had Eric Schmidt’s money and resources, and I really cared about the developing world, I can think of many places to start that are more pressing than the architecture of the internet in China or Iran. Freedom can’t thrive on information and expression alone; it requires economic prosperity, security, and a universal belief in human rights. Off the cuff, I think of child slaves in the Cote d’Ivorie harvesting most of the world’s cocoa or the dangerous conditions of garment workers supplying the West, or the surprising number of homeless living in the New Jerusalem of Silicon Valley. By contrast, fussing over hypothetical restrictions on Twitter just sounds dumb.
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