is the internet progressive?

Over at the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov reviews Future Perfect:
 The Case for Progress in a Networked Age  by Steven Johnson. The question is whether the Internet has a progressive effect or not. A few quick notes:

  • The decentralized Internet seems to be a historical contingency. The Chinese Internet shows that it can be set up in ways that facilitate top down control.
  • Movements often exploit new communication technologies (think mimeo’s in the 60s, fax in the 80s, or twitter in 2011) but eventually the Man will catch up.
  • Except for some very specialized activism (e.g., Wikileaks), the Internet has not changed the overall structure of “brick and mortar” activism: use some social ties, make some orgs, do some protest, lobby some people.

What is the case for Internet as progressive force?

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Written by fabiorojas

February 20, 2013 at 12:47 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

4 Responses

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  1. As I see it, the internet operates on two levels.

    1. As a place that distributes information very cheaply (and in this respect, it does little to change the basics of politics or other brick and mortar firms.) Private companies can use the internet to capture questions of scale and distribution, but the fundamentals — building shit — don’t change. Likewise, activists can collect money or send out information more quickly, but this doesn’t change the basic structural relations of contemporary politics.

    2. The internet is also the source of new — forgive my language — means of production. I think that you could make the case that with things like bitcoin, or paypal in its day, or perhaps some of the new banking services that are beginning to form, that there are actually new structures, new forms of community etc that are beginning to change. I’m skeptical on this level. I think that if you digest enough Tom Friedman columns, then you might come to conclusion that the internet could be the land of unalienated craftsman programming and we’re all going to have careers as SEOs or social media consultants or whatever.

    However, assuming you’re not such an idiot, then the only thing that has changed is the means of distribution.



    February 20, 2013 at 12:57 am

  2. Both Morozov and one of his strawmen, Shirky, are fascinating public intellectuals on the role of the digital in society. However, the title of Morozov’s critique of Johnson’s book says it all, “Why Social Movements Should Ignore Social Media.” (Let’s ignore for a moment the possibility that a copy editor at The New Republic wrote the headline.) Consider the “should.” It is a compelling prediction, but we, as social scientists, are not in the prediction business. Morozov has held stints at several universities, but he is not a social scientist. Nothing wrong with that, really, as some of my best friends aren’t even social scientists. In fact, I read him, cite him, and heck, even agree with much of what he has to say. However, the polemic that he creates is not embedded in empirical research of his own doing. Nothing wrong with that, but scholars who study digital activism rarely come up with the grandiose claims of technological determinism that he denounces. Those of us who study the messy world of social movements and social media find complexity and nuance, which is the annoying reality that reduces our probability of reaching high citation status, rather than, well, strawmen.

    But for the question at hand, is the Internet a progressive force? So far, I have, indeed, found the opposite – activist groups that care more about democracy tend to care less about the Internet. That goes for both Tea Party and rank-and-file labor unions. They see it as just one of many tools to get people to participate. The Internet matters, but just not as much as some may think. But even groups who are not using it, mostly for digital inequality reasons, are not “ignoring” it. The digital is now embedded and embodied in our, and activists’, everyday lives, rather than a magical elixir that fixes collective action problems. So, in that respect, Morozov is on the right track, but he fails to see the complex ways in which social movements and social media intersect.


    Jen Schradie

    February 20, 2013 at 6:36 am

  3. Is there a good example of a “progressive” technology?

    I’m thinking of how other technologies might be approached in terms of this question: Was the telephone a progressive force? Was the printing press a progressive force? Was the dishwasher a progressive force? Was the railway a progressive force? Was the airplane a progressive force? Was gunpowder a progressive force? Was spaceflight a progressive force? … Was the wheel … was fire a progressive force?

    In my view the question about the internet only makes sense if we come up with different answers for different technologies. E.g., “The telephone has been a more progressive force than the television.” I’m not sure that kind thing makes sense to ask. But answers to this question in the case of older, better understood, technologies might give us a template for assessing the progressiveness of the Internet.



    February 20, 2013 at 5:24 pm

  4. A piece on how the internet is shaping the way we understand the physical world we live in, and thereby reinforcing inequalities (so I guess I’m helping the case against the internet as progressive force):

    I think the most interesting point is this:
    “When we use this information (by, for example, clicking on a restaurant on Google Maps), we are often simultaneously consumers and producers of it (that single click is another data point in Google’s vast machine). All of this means that the geoweb may not just be reinforcing real-world inequalities. In many ways, it’s also enabling us to have dramatically difference experiences of the same places.”

    Though it doesn’t really show that the internet has made this worse, and maps have always omitted some information and included other (as the end of the article acknowledges), it is nonetheless interesting.


    Molly King

    February 21, 2013 at 1:35 am

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