The internet is neither neutral nor inherently liberating. It operates in the context of existing social conventions and power structures. Its impact is real but often subtle and unexpected.
Yesterday we had a fascinating event with Evgeny Morozov, a US based expert on how political regimes use technology. Contradicting the lazy cyber utopianism of many politicians and commentators, he showed how authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran are using the internet as a tool of reaction and repression. From Russia’s experiments with e-consultation, to the Iranian and Chinese regimes using crowd sourcing to identify dissidents, to the use by various regimes (including Israel) of private companies to manipulate online polls and Google searches, bad people in high places are proving as good at using the internet as good people blogging for freedom from their basements. Indeed, these regimes have been as good at using the internet to foster nationalism and pro-regime extremism among the young as the opposition have at mobilising protest.
Morozov also questioned the idea that the internet encourages democratic engagement showing, for example, that Chinese young people are even more likely than those in the West to use the internet primarily for entertainment (adult or otherwise). It is as much a new opium for the people as a catalyst for democratic awakening.
By coincidence, just before Evgeny’s talk, I had a fascinating meeting with Matt Locke (FRSA) who makes up half the tiny but brilliant team at C4 commissioning multimedia youth content. He has some very interesting insights about how young people operate online and I am hoping we can get him to the Society soon to discuss the pros and cons of trying to encourage young people into more creative and constructive online engagement.
Then, this morning, I read a Guardian piece by Jon Henley which suggested that a large part of the explanation for the current crop of court cases and press stories involving teacher-pupil relationships is the way that remote communication (through SMS, e-mailing and social networking) had enabled much more contact (much of it unwelcome) out of school hours.
The web is changing culture, relationships and organisations. Its effects are real and important. Sometimes they are good and sometimes not. The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.