The New Republic has published a story “dictatorship.com”:http://www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20040405&s=kurlantzick040504 pooh poohing the notion that access to the Internet in a nation can help to undermine dictatorships. Needless to say this was like a red rag to a bull for some of the more Internet-philic – “Jeff Jarvis”:http://www.buzzmachine.com/archives/2004_03_27.html#about calls the piece, “load of naysaying, stick-in-the-sludge, cynical, behind-the-times, underreported, snotty crap“.
Though Jeff is right to pour scorn on TNR’s occaisional recycling of un-researched prejudices like the assertion that the Internet “lends itself to individual rather than communal activities”, I have to say I think TNR’s article is on the whole a welcome corrective to the kind of utopian thinking often espoused by online pundits and the furious reaction to the piece only reinforces this view. That’s not to say that the Internet does not have a potential role in the growth of civil society – of course it can be helpful. But to say as Jeff Jarvis does that, “In the last century, Coke meant freedom. In this century, the Internet means freedom” is to indulge in knee jerk technological determinism that overlooks the vital importance of the social context of technology use.
Also see an “earlier blog entry”:http://blog.org/archives/cat_academia.html#000758 of mine on an excellent book on the Internet in authoritarian regimes cited in the TNR piece.