Nick Cohen has some interesting comments on the alleged power of the blogosphere in relationship to the power of tyrants. They raise important questions about the potential role of the blogosphere in the 21st century.
A connected world proves no threat to tyrants
As a blogger is jailed, promises that the internet would challenge dictators have proved illusory
Sunday February 25, 2007
Every now and again, an established journalist goes into print to rage against the bloggers. Our old role of gatekeepers who decided what news and opinions the public should hear is crumbling under pressure from the net. The loudest wails came after American bloggers tore into the political coverage of CBS during the 2004 presidential election campaign and exposed a tendentious documentary. Jonathan Klein, a former CBS News executive, snapped: ‘You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at CBS] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pyjamas writing on the net.’
This is also what led one observer to remark that this was a “Gutenberg moment,” when a new technology of communications permitted the emergence of a body of thinkers who broke the monopoly on the public sphere enjoyed by the masters of the previous technology of communications (e.g. print vs. manuscript culture, or now, cyberspace vs. print culture).
Delighted bloggers took the insult as a compliment, called themselves ‘Pyjamahadeen’, and puffed themselves up as the new opinion-formers, but neither they nor their opponents in the traditional media got blogging right. Although the net has given welcome space to new political writers who otherwise would never have been published, most bloggers aren’t interested in the democratisation of opinion. They write about their lives, what books they are reading and music they are listening to.
This is a problematic formulation. The issue is not the focus of the majority of the 50 million or more blogs that exist. The issue is what happens at the border between the huge blogosphere and the gatekeepers to the public sphere, to the MSM. So it’s not any blogger who writes, but the “political” bloggers who count, and even within that sphere, it’s the empirically-based bloggers that have the largest impact. The dextrasphere has at least two scalps to its credit — Rather and Adnan Hajj — where as the sinistrasphere seems to show it’s skepticism of the MSM primarily by trying to mainstream conspiracy theories like 9-11. The issues of what makes a story reach the “event-horizon” and pass from blogosphere to MSM will be among the most critical in coming years and will transform the shape of the MSM (which will eventually move to cyberspace and undergo massive transformations in the process).
‘The Critic’, a blog by Abdel-Karim Nabil Suleiman, 22, from Alexandria, was a hybrid that straddled the two camps: half political essaying, half diary. He attacked Egypt’s effective dictator Hosni Mubarak and the religious far right, but backed up his polemics with accounts of Islamists ransacking the liquor stores of Egyptian Christians. Last week, an Egyptian court sentenced him to four years in prison for ‘insulting Islam and the President’. The punishment was too mild for some. Egyptian Islamists wanted him dead.
This is a perfect example of how the appearance of a new and more demotic communications (here cyberspace) give voice to material that embarrasses those who, in authoritarian cultures, control the public sphere. The reaction of the Islamists is the key to why there are no loud moderate voices in the Arab and Muslim world, despite the assurance from PCPers that “the vast majority of Muslims are moderate.” Not understanding the dynamics at work here make our assessment of Egypt, the Arab world, Islam fundamentally faulty.
I have a book out, What’s Left?, on the disastrous turning of the European liberal mainstream from their allies in the poor world and the gruesome alliances between pseudo-leftists and ultra-reactionaries. The Nabil case backs it up. With the honourable exceptions of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, naturally, British bloggers, there have been no protests here.
As disconcerting as the silence from those who should know better is what the persecution of bloggers, not only in Egypt but in Iran and China, says about the net. As the dotcom boom and bust fades into history, the business press is again celebrating the revolutionary potential of a wired world. The discomfort of the mainstream media is just the start of it, they argue. The net is humbling big business as consumers compare the price of everything from gas to bank interest rates and take their custom to the corporations offering the best value. Meanwhile, doctors face patients who can find out if the NHS’s treatments they are offered are the best available and politicians must cope with an electorate that can investigate the claims of soundbites and manifestos with a click of a mouse.
The cheerleaders are right in many respects. The net is changing the world, but not all of it. Contrary to the optimism of the Nineties, that it would allow oppressed peoples to escape censors and read forbidden opinions, the net is proving surprisingly easy for dictatorships to control.
This seems a bit hasty. It took the Gutenberg Galaxy over three centuries to have the kind of effects — overthrowing tyrannical regimes and installing democracies (late 15th to late 18th centuries) — Cohen expects in a decade. Just because the strength of this phenomenon has aroused resistance, hardly means that it’s run its course.
If you go to Cuba, you will find a connection only if you are prepared to join one of the long queues outside internet cafes or ‘youth computing centres’ where monitors check you are not visiting ‘counter-revolutionary’ sites. Reporters Without Borders found the censorship so extreme it had allowed only 2 per cent of the population to go online, the lowest take-up of any Latin American country.
If Cubans are to escape poverty, connecting the island is as essential as ending American embargoes. But why should the leaders do it? Their priority is maintaining their power, wealth and privileges. If developing the economy means replacing closed email networks with open ones and running the risk of Cubans reading the writings of dissidents, they will choose to keep their subject people poor. Burma, North Korea and many Arab and African dictatorships have made the same decision.
This describes the basic workings of prime divider societies and why they are cultures not so much of poverty but impoverization — they make people poor because it’s in their interest. As Adam Smith remarked in The Wealth of Nations (Book I, chapter 8 ), in discussing why people preferred slavery even though it was economically inefficient — they love to dominate so much, they’ll sacrifice wealth.
The censorship in dictatorships whose elites want prosperity is more complicated but no less effective. At a practical level, the only difference from the Home Office’s guidelines that say British internet service providers should block access to sites featuring the sexual abuse of children is the scale, but the scale is huge. Jonathan Zittrain and Ben Edelman of Harvard University have conducted eye-popping tests on what the people of China and Saudi Arabia can and can’t access. As you might expect, the Chinese communists blocked access to the sites of pro-democracy dissidents and web pages that recorded the massacres and famines of the Mao years. The BBC, CNN and Time sites were consistently unreachable, but so, too, were the web pages of the US and British courts. Some censor somewhere in the bureaucracy must want the Chinese to believe that American and Britain don’t have an independent judiciary.
Saudi Arabia’s theocratic royals and their Wahhabi allies block access to sites promoting Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and gay and women’s rights. Such is their misogyny, they have also banned the ‘Women in American History’ section of the online Encyclopaedia Britannica
Many in rich countries worry that the poorest who would benefit most from cheaper gas or bargains on eBay are the least likely to be have access to the net, and talk of the growing gap between the information-rich and information-poor. But there is also a global gap between information-rich and poor countries. Few foresaw it in the optimistic Nineties. The globalisation of the net was meant to challenge censorship and tyranny. That’s not the way it turned out. Dictatorships are tenacious and are more than a match for the ‘Pyjamahadeen’.
The legend goes that someone asked Mao/Ho Chi Minh what he thought of the American Revolution and he responded, “It’s too early to know yet.” That may be a bit too cute — especially given the impatience these men showed with their own alleged “revolutions.” But the point here is that Cohen has judged way too soon. The real issue is what the longer-term trends are. If the internet continues to be a free enterprise, then these dictatorships will have more and more trouble over time.
The real problem, alas, is if the forces of Islamism gain the upper hand. Then we can expect to see the victory of the tyrants.