I’m half-way through Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (Allen Lane), an impressive and uncompromising polemic that seeks to dispel the illusion of ‘cyber-utopia’, i.e. the idea that free infomation leads to free people, that the internet inevitably generates democracy. It’s dense, unrelenting, but immaculately researched and studded with fantastic examples.
Morozov refers on a number of occasions to the Cold War, which numerous triumphalists claim was ‘won’ by the west (the alternative theory, adroitly argued by Tony Judt in his now famous demolition of John Lewis Gaddis’ 2006 history of the Cold War, also published by AllenLane, is that it imploded under the weight of its own ineptitude). There were two separate, but related, theories about how access to Western media would democratize the Soviets – ‘liberation by facts’, whereby news and current affairs broadcasts would reveal to the oppressed masses the truth about their despotic leaders, leading the people to rise up and overthrow them; and ‘liberation by gadgets’, which basically involved spreading images and stories of ‘fast cars, fancy kitchen appliances and suburban happiness’, thus tapping into citizens’ natural and innate consumerist impulse and inciting, yes you guessed it, revolution.
So that was the theory, but sadly it didn’t always seem to work. Morozov highlights the German Democratic Republic, which was an unusual case to say the least: a communist country that for virtually all of its existence could receive western media. (I had no idea – as a fan of films like The Lives of Others, I’d just assumed there was blanket censorship). Were citizens more politically informed, more vocal in their opposition, as a result of being able to compare Western and Eastern versions of ‘news’ for the best part of a 30-year period? Apparently not. East Germans weren’t all that interested in tracking the latest developments from Nato – they preferred soft news and entertainment, such as Dallas, Miami Vice and Sesame Street. In interviews with East Germans conducted after the Wall fell, many said they didn’t believe what they heard on Western news; they just assumed it was propaganda (Morozov wrily points out that in their distrust and suspicion of ‘the Western propaganda apparatus’, they were ‘more Chomskian than Noam Chomsky himself’). When asked, in a separate study, what they thought of their country’s TV scheduling, they requested more entertainment and less politics. Eventually the GDR’s propaganda officials realised that the best way to get people to watch their ideological programming and propaganda reports was to schedule them when Western TV was running news and current affairs programmes – ‘which East Germans found to be least interesting’.
All of this taps into an ongoing argument about the role of media organisations, newspapers, broadcasters, indeed governments – should you give the people what they want? Or what you think they ought to want?