Internet freedom and Digital Revolution? Grow up.
Developed by childish grown-ups for grown-up children, the Internet has encouraged a lot of child-like nonsense from the BBC Digital Revolution team about the withering away of power and of the state. That eternal adolescent, Bill Thompson, is so excited about the Internet's potential to revolutionize our political species-being, he says, supposedly seriously, that it "counts as one of the most important things we've managed to do as a species." While the irony is actually on an equally straightfaced Aleks Krotoski when she incorrectly argues that 'it's ironic that Internet technology was devised and developed to protect the state, but is now being used to dismantle it.'
What childish nonsense from the kids manning the ideological barricades of the digital revolution. Firstly, as Fred Turner shows so brilliantly in his seminal From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Internet technology was "devised" and 'developed' in the Sixties by a curious alliance of the American Cold War military-industrial 'state' and by libertarian west coast hippies represented by counter-cultural merry pranksters like 'Whole Earth Catalog' founder Stewart Brand. Think of the Internet like an ideological map of California - impossibly incorporating both the Reaganite south and its apparent antithesis, the left-liberal north.
So, like a supposedly innocent child, the Internet is actually more complicated that it first appears. It is simultaneously authoritarian and anti-authoritarian, both a representative of traditional state power and resistance to that power, both a representative of the dominant establishment and a revolutionary challenge to it, simultaneously elitist and anti-elitist. What Turner reveals is the origins of the same post-industrial cultural phenomenon identified by critics like Daniel Bell in the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and by Robert Frank in The Conquest of Cool.
In a media saturated culture which increasingly fetishizes the nonconformity and innocence of the child, power is resistance, authority is questioning authority, the state is against the state, the new brand is the anti brand, political activism (to quote the Open Society Institute's Evgeny Morozov) is the 'slactivism' of the social network. The Internet has, therefore, become both a medium for strengthening this new ideology of capitalism and commercial platform for selling its products and ideas. The weaker the formal state becomes, the more we question the authority of the police, the judiciary, the traditional political parties and ideological configurations, the more we build up the Internet as an anti-authoritarian source of authority.
And thus, in the West, the state is slowly but surely being replaced by the Internet, an abstractly distributed version of our old certainties about power and authority.
And now, too, in America, the Internet generation, those merry pranksters led by a BlackBerry addicted President brought to power on the back of the distributed crowd who claims to be 'beyond' ideology, have actually come to 'power'. Therein lies the ideologically seductive nature of the Internet in a West which simultaneously wants to celebrate and undermine itself (the celebration perhaps becoming the undermining). It supposed absence of confirms what we think we already know - that power lies in the dismantlement, that the revolution (finally) has arrived. And it's us, the great dismantlers.
Meanwhile, of course, nothing has actually changed. In America, financial, political and military power still resides in the same elites. They've simply learnt the new populist language of dismantlement. Take Obama, for example, whose brand epitomizes how power itself in the west has become a slick marketing concept. He came to power on the back of the distributed crowd, that supposedly wise thing created by the Internet to smash the incompetent old elites. But what does he do when he finally inherits power from the old regime? He appoints those very elites, the Ivy League educated meritocracy, that he was supposed to replace.
Outside the West, of course, the story is quite the opposite. Here the childishly libertarian argument about the Internet weakening the state is beyond irony - it's hideously wrong and BBC digital revolutionaries should be ashamed of themselves for perpetrating such self-evident rubbish. In China, Russia and Iran, the Internet has become a disturbingly effective set of technological tools for maintaining the power of the old elites. In Russia, for example, Putin's cronies just financed an online witch hunt against a single Georgian activist which was so effective that it brought down not only Twitter, but also Facebook. In Iran, the increasingly powerful regime now sponsors religious workshops in the holy city of Qom which offer courses for seminarians in how to blog about the Iranian revolution. In China, the regime pays 'distributed citizens' to 'engage in conversation' with dissidents on the Internet. Crowd-sourcing, hacking, blogging then, are all turned on their heads. Now they are chillingly effective tools to destroy political democracy, intellectual dissent and individual freedom.
Out of that unholy marriage of the American military industrial complex and its supposed antithesis, the hippy counterculture, we in the West have freely (an alternate definition of Chris Anderson's fetishization of FREE) given authoritarian regimes a series of technology tools (ie: the Internet) to maintain themselves in power. The only thing that the web has really dismantled is the childish dream of the end of history. The Internet is too serious a thing to left to revolutionary kids like Bill Thompson and Aleks Krotoski.