In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Public Affairs, 2011), Evgeny Morozov looks at the Internet and our present technologies of Twitter, Google, iPads, iPhones, ad infinitum with a healthy dose of skepticism and irony. Has our technology enabled democracy, social equality, and progress? Most Americans might answer yes without hesitation. Not so fast. Morozov’s book reminds us that these technologies can be used to suppress as much as to liberate. And that human nature and will govern the power relations in society.
I’m very sympathetic to this view. Looking back in the nineteenth century, we see a similar kind of euphoria over the convergence of rail and telegraph in American society. And yet we also fought a Civil War in which over 600,000 Americans died. For generations we have carefully separated these two events–in large part because our faith in technological progress has been so embedded in our national culture ever since. We want to see both our first great technological transformation and the Civil War as similarly progressive. And of course they were in many important ways. Yet, if we look closely we see in the nineteenth century many of the same unintended consequences–most prominently, the ways technology could extend and enable slavery in the American South.
And the similarly powerful technological transformation underway now, as Morozov reminds us, should make us more alert, not less, to its varied consequences. For an excellent review, see The New York Times book review by Lee Seigel.