In my column yesterday about the Google and China mess, I explored how this rift could affect Silicon Valley’s relationship with China. But within the column, I also included this thought:
“The conventional wisdom that has been shattered was based on a kind of digital utopianism prevalent throughout Silicon Valley. This line of thinking holds that the Internet, and Web-based services like Google, Twitter and Facebook, are liberating forces. Maybe it would take five years, maybe a couple of decades, but over time as more Chinese gained access and technology, there would be the inevitable dismantling of cultural, economic and political barriers.”
That spurred some discussions on Twitter and got me thinking more about that idea. By coincidence, I was catching up this morning on my backlog of TED videos, when a talk by Evgeny Morozov came up called: “How the ‘Net aids dictatorships.” The talk is summarized as:
“TED Fellow and journalist Evgeny Morozov punctures what he calls “iPod liberalism” — the assumption that tech innovation always promotes freedom, democracy — with chilling examples of ways the Internet helps oppressive regimes stifle dissent.”
Morozov’s talk got me thinking more about this subject.
In his talk, Morozov further skewers the notion that we “drop iPods, not bombs” to spread democracy. (I’m not in favor of dropping the latter, by the way.) But he runs through a number of examples of how technology has not just failed to be a liberating force, but in fact has helped repressive regimes monitor the activities of their citizens even more closely.
Of course, if you want the standard view of how technology can be a liberating force, listen to this TED talk from Clay Shirky:
For me, this has brought up discussions I have had as far back as my senior of college in 1991. We were still in the afterglow of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe. And I can recall classes where we talked about the role that TV and radio played in connecting people and furthering freedom movements. But even then I was dubious, and pointed out that in the disintegrating state of Yugoslovia, the growing forms of communications weren’t stemming the growth of ethnic hatred.
And of course, later in that decade, we had Rwanda, which Morozov mentions in his talk.
A few weeks ago, On The Media also explored this issue in a segment called: The Long Arm of Tyranny:
I have a hunch that in the case of Google, the co-founders probably really did believe in that power of technology as a liberating force. I think that’s why they stayed as long as they did, and compromised as much as they did. I think they really believed, for a time, that their little search engine could do for the Chinese population what all the organizers of Tiananmen Square protests, what all the U.S. propaganda, what all the sales of Quarter Pounders could not do. I think they thought Google could reform China. And it was in recent weeks that they were forced to confront the reality, that even mighty Google, was not going to change China.
Indeed, a Wall Street Journal story yesterday (sub. required) reveals some of the inside details of Google’s debate. CEO Eric Schmidt apparently wanted to stay, believing to the end that Google could change China from within. But Sergey Brin eventually argued that it was time to go. Eventually, with Larry Page, the three came to an agreement and approved the blog post ‘heard round the world.
This was not about business, or morality. This was more than anything, about a company losing its religion.