The Information Empire Strikes Back

The next phase in social networking and politics has arrived: states are fighting back

As was noted in our previous blog post –‘Egypt, the internet and the washing machine’, which put the use of social media in the Middle East revolutions in an historical context by reminding us of the use of the washing machine in women’s liberation – the topic of social networking and its effects often provokes fierce debate, with sides regularly and mutually castigating one another. However, some less-publicised developments around the world hint at a second round of hauling over the coals.

As the BBC reports, Sudan’s ruling party is now taking the cyber-fight to the protesters. Fearful of being the next domino to fall, the despotic heads of the oil-rich country have claimed to have a core of “cyber jihadists” conducting (using the euphemism of the week) “online defence operations” in order to “crush” (that’s more like it) any online dissent. Meanwhile, in China, Amnesty International reports that online activists calling for a revolution in China have been detained at a scale not seen in years.

So, it turns out that the internet and social networking are value neutral and can be used for despotic ends as much as for emancipation. Increasingly, heads of state the world over are also realising the potential of social networking for their varied ends (Benjamin Netanyahu and Hugo Chavez are regular and astute tweeters, Chavez has over 1.3m people following). With all the talk about the truly revolutionary potential of the internet – more, advocates claim, than any other technology in history – what do these developments mean? Is the internet a technology strong enough to withstand efforts towards government and commercial assimilation and retain its revolutionary potential?

Courtesy of AsianOffbeat.com

(Pic courtesy of AsianOffbeat.com)

Perhaps not, as Tim Wu, a Columbia Law professor, argues in his excellent new book ‘The Master Switch: the Rise and Fall of Information Empires’, a tome that manages to wrestle a subject of near-painful hipness with intellectual rigour and clarity. Wu’s book is a magnificent and highly-readable tale that begins from the “scientific” utopianism and belief in progress of the late Victorian period and weaves that into the technological innovations of the present day.

Professor Wu argues, in a way more Toynbee than Spengler, that new technologies emerge with a broadly decentralised format causing a spurt of optimism, furnished with proclamations of its emancipative and creative potential. Occasionally, these are backed up with some genuine achievements but in the end, they become areas of oligopolistic consolidation – our euphemism for control by large corporations who begin a process of command and centralisation (listen to his lecture at the RSA).

As Wu writes: “Without exception, the brave new technologies of the twentieth century – free use of which was originally encouraged, for the sake of further invention and individual expression – eventually evolved into privately controlled industrial behemoths, the “old media” giants of the twenty-first, through which the flow and nature of content would be strictly controlled for reasons of commerce”.

One of the indicators that we are moving towards this trend is because of the stronger presence of states into virtual spaces, as shown above. As Wu shows, this consolidation of information empires is often done with state support. As the facts of recent trends in globalisation show, multinational corporations quite often use states to impose themselves. The entrance of multinationals may well be phase 3.0 (or 2.5) but it appears that phase 2.0 seems to be beginning now that various authoritarian states have cottoned on to some of the potential of social media.

Debates may continue for years about the degree to which social networking has been responsible for the protests, but it is undeniable that a role was played, a fact reflected in the crackdowns against ‘netizens’. Cynics may say that even the internet cannot organise a vanguard strong enough to topple the onslaught of China’s authoritarian regime. But such a claim ignores China’s recent history which has seen several tumultuous upheavals in the twentieth century alone. As Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, recently wrote, “the advent and power of connection technologies…will make the twenty-first century all about surprises”.

The question now is: what – or where – will the next surprise be? Will the internet become yet another restricted tool, a space packaged and manipulated for consumption with its early promise deadened and its potential sucked out for corporate interests? Only if we want to, says Wu: To keep the internet’s openness, we will need the “cultivation of a popular ethic concerning our society’s relation to information, an ethic consistent with the importance of information in our individual and collective lives” and a mindset that is aware of “the imminent perils of a closed system”.

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