W. Joseph Campbell

Challenging the myth of ‘techno-utopianism’

In Debunking, Media myths on February 22, 2010 at 8:47 am

The Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition carried a great article challenging the fashionable notion that new media technologies and platforms represent a lethal threat to authoritarian regimes, such as the theocracy in Iran.

It’s a compelling argument, that “free and unfettered access to information, combined with new tools of mobilization afforded by blogs and social networks, leads to the opening up of authoritarian societies and their eventual democratization,” as the author, Evgeny Morozov, says in the Journal article.

Employing digital options and technology to promote democracy has become a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

Morozov, however, warns that such views are little more than “‘techno-utopianism.'”

Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, notes that “the Internet often makes the jump from deliberation to participation even more difficult, thwarting collective action under the heavy pressure of never-ending internal debate.

“This is what may explain the impotence of recent protests in Iran: Thanks to the sociability and high degree of decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers—some of them composed primarily of net-savvy Iranians in the diaspora—that it couldn’t collect itself [last week] on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.”

Revolutionary change typically “requires a high degree of centralization” among opponents of authoritarian regimes, Morozov notes, adding, the splintering effect of the Internet “does not always help here.”

Moreover, unrestricted access to dissenting views isn’t necessarily a decisive, motivating factor in revolutions.

Morozov offers as a telling example the case of East Germany, where during the Cold War many people had routine and little-restricted access to West German television.  They lived schizophrenically, as the New York Times once put it: In socialism by day, capitalism by night–via West German TV.

Steady exposure to views challenging those of East Germany’s communist government did little to stir revolutionary spirits. Indeed, the East Germans were among the last to rebel against communist rule in the democratization wave that swept Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s.

“According to data compiled by the East German government,” Morozov writes, “East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country and the communist regime.”

Ironically, he adds, the upheaval that ultimately unraveled the East German regime had its origins in Dresden, which mostly was beyond the reach of West German television signals.

Morozov also points out that social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook “empower all groups—not just the pro-Western groups that we like.” They can be, and have been, co-opted to disseminate views harmful and antithetical to fledgling pro-democracy movements, in Iran and elsewhere.

Morozov’s article is a reminder of how tempting it can be to overstate, or over-presume, media power. This is a theme raised in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book debunking media-driven myths.

Media-driven myths are dubious or apocryphal tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence.

I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational. But too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

It’s easy and tempting to confound the media’s omnipresence with media power. And that certainly helps drive the appeal of “techno-utopianism.”


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