Digital Power and Its Discontents: An Edge Conversation with Morozov & Shirky

Shirky.300 In Edge:

CLAY SHIRKY: Evgeny, I think this may be a frustrating hour, because I think you and I disagree with each other less than you disagree with a lot of the people you’re calling internet utopians. For instance, you recently picked on the John Perry Barlow piece A Declaration of the Rights of Cyberspace, which is so over-the-top Libertarian, and which presents cyberspace as a separate sphere unconnected to the rest of the planet, that it didn’t really have much effect on practical matters like foreign policy.


EVGENY MOROZOV: I guess we’re talking about a recent essay of mine that appeared in Wall Street Journal in February. It was published a week after yet another overhyped wave of Iranian protests came to nothing. But this time something was different in how that failure was explained in the media. Suddenly, I could sense some public frustration — even in The New York Times — about how the Internet could have actually thwarted the protests, making them more disorganized. That’s something I really wanted to play with in that essay. But since the Wall Street Journal wanted me to offer a critique of techno-utopianianism, I had to venture beyond recent events and see what kind of ideas are guiding governments in this space. Thus, the real objective was not to pick on John Perry Barlow — who in 1996 wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” — which is one of the seminal texts of cyber-libertarianism, or any of the other early thinkers. It was more to reveal that we are currently facing a huge intellectual void with the regards to the Internet’s impact on global politics.

But the lack of a coherent framework does not really prevent us from embracing the power of the Internet. There is certainly a lot of excitement within governments — both democratic and authoritarian ones — about using the Internet to advance their political agendas, both at home and abroad. The kind of assumptions that politicians need in order to decide their policies all have to come from somewhere. And much of what has been said about the Internet in the past seems intellectually invalid today. Still, most of the assumptions made by politicians seem to be rooted in early cyber-libertarian discourses about the Internet and politics. A lot of those early discourses took shape in particular (and very different) contexts. If you look at John Perry Barlow’s declaration, it was produced in the context of attempts to regulate the Internet in America, in 1996. It had nothing to do with Iran and only very little with the world outside of the US. We do need a new theory to guide us through all of this, for old theories are no good.

SHIRKY: Yes, I agree with that, and with regard to Declaration of the Rights of Cyberspace — ten years ago I was teaching that at NYU classes as an example of sloppy political thinking, so I think we’ve known that those theories were no good for a while now.

You end your Journal essay with a fairly evocative paragraph saying, “The State Department can’t abandon ideas of trying to harness the Internet for democracy, but it should come up with a policy that’s more in line with what’s possible, or what works.”