What My lolcat Ate For Breakfast

[This is a reading reflection for HIST946: Digital Humanities for Prof. William G. Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s readings were Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and Jaron Lanier “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”. You can find related posts here.]

The thread running through the two readings this week force us to think about the potential pitfalls of the Internet. Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier both point out reasonable considerations about Internet freedom and the threats to that concept, although their cases are not entirely convincing.

Morozov seeks to challenge the beliefs of cyber-utopianists and Internet-centrists in their belief that technology can serve as a liberator, similarly to the technology in the Cold War like Radio Free Europe and samizdat presses. Unfortunately, Morozov tends to fall into the same trap as those he seeks to criticize. For all that can go wrong with the Internet, he denies the transformative nature of the Internet. Indeed, the network has achieved world-wide historical importance. The Internet is more than what my lolcat ate for breakfast.

This is not to suggest Morozov is all wrong. Certainly, he is right to point out that authoritarian regimes can use the Internet just as effectively as activists. The three pillars of authoritarianism that he identifies — surveillance, censorship, and propaganda — can be strengthened through the Internet. One’s involvement in social media may reveal yourself to secret police, or authoritarian states may enroll the same technology in the spread of disinformation or propaganda. Distraction is also a tool of authoritarianism. When given the choice, he argues, people are much more likely to choose those things that entertain them rather than engage them.

But where he gets it wrong is the notion that technology cannot empower people. Dismissing retweets as political power or slactivism as the prevailing notion of online political engagement is a flimsy argument that asserts online activism is somehow easy or ineffective because it’s online. The challenge of activism online is not the Internet, but rather the general political environment generally. Citizens face the challenge of leveraging their own power against government and corporate institutions. Lolcats and aggregators like Reddit do not indicate a shift in human thought. Small bits of information like jokes and small talk are all part of a normal human experience. The Internet has just allowed these information bits to become aggregated and viral. Is Morozov right that the Internet allows for an acceleration in nationalistic or religious extremism? Perhaps. Certainly the Internet makes finding such communities much easier, and remaining (relatively) anonymous in those interactions gives such communities an outlet. But such fears are nothing new. In the history of printing, church scribes and elite literati were critical of low-brow material and the disruptive power of the printing press.

Lanier echoes some of these critiques when he views Wikipedians determining the authority of information and the utopianism of collective activity. Lanier agrees with Morozov in suggesting that technology can be harnessed to solve all problems. The Internet is far too young to conclude it’s a community of darkness or digital Maoism. Morozov and Lanier are right to point out some of the faults and warn against the strengthening of surveillance, censorship, propaganda, and cyber-collectivism, but ignores the potential for the Internet to disseminate information and organize activists.

What lessons do Morozov and Lanier offer the digital humanities? It reminds us to check ourselves in the euphoria of digital humanities. We should be mindful that digital humanities does not take on the aura of technological progressivism, that the methods we are pursuing are not becoming something that will “save” the humanities. Just as easily as technology extends and transforms the practice of history, it can also be beholden to power relations and organizations. Certainly the technology of computers and the Internet have introduced remarkable positive transformations, it can also spawn unintended consequences. Look, for example, and the stagnant discussions over tenure and promotion in digital scholarship. After decades of digital humanities output, the digital infrastructure for tenure, promotion, and publishing remains undeveloped. The solution is not to give up on the technology, but to think more deeply about its potentials.