Digital power in the postmodern age

[ Mon. Apr. 12. 2010 ]

A great Edge exchange between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky about how the Internet and digital technology works to affect power relations within polities. Morozov says he thinks techno-utopians in the press are taking a too-narrow view of how the Internet conditions and subverts power relationships in society:

One of the reasons I've been so unhappy with how the media have been covering the role of the Internet in Iran -- and this I guess also has to do with them reading certain things into your book that you did not intend to say there -- is the almost exclusive focus on analyzing what the Internet has done to protest movements, at the expense of thinking about its impact on everything else. But if we focus only on how people coordinate themselves with the help of social media before, during, or after the elections, we miss many other effects that the Internet is having in public, social, and political life in authoritarian states, especially in the long term.

Shouldn't we also be asking whether it's making people more receptive to nationalism? Or whether it might be promoting a certain (hedonism-based) ideology that may actually push them further away from any meaningful engagement in politics? Does it actually empower certain non-state forces within authoritarian states that may not necessarily be conductive to democracy and freedom? Those are all big questions which we cannot answer if we just focus on who gets empowered during the protests, the state or the protesters, because some countries, well, don't have that many protests. Or elections. China doesn't have national elections.

I keep meaning to get around to blogging about James Davison Hunter's new book, which discusses culture-makers as having the real power in the world (versus mere politicians). Later, I promise. Meanwhile, John Brockman of Edge has a tart observation about academics and the conversation about communications and media's impact on the current world:

The questions being asked in this conversation are for the most part coming from thinkers who are not situated in traditional academic disciplines and whose authority is not derived from institutional affiliations. This is a crowd of maverick intellectuals. In addition to Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky, participants in the ongoing Edge discussion include David Gelernter, George Dyson, Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Kevin Kelly, Yochai Benkler, Douglas Rushkoff, and Charles Leadbeater. Only Gelernter (Yale), Benkler (Harvard), Shirky (NYU), hold academic positions.

Perhaps one reason there are so few thinkers from the psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy departments of our major universities contributing to this conversation is that communications theory has long been deemed to be a low-prestige discipline among academics. The best people are likely to be found outside academia.

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