No, the Internet does not help build democracies

I don’t know if Barrett Sheridan wrote his Newsweek piece, “The Internet Helps Build Democracies” in response to or independent of Evgeny Morozov’s recent piece in Foreign Policy (Think Again: The Internet ; May/June 2010).

Still, it sort of amazes me that this techno-utopianism (or as Evgeny puts it, “iPod liberalism“) still persists, at least amongst smart, internationally-minded journalists like Barrett Sheridan. I mean, I get why popular opinion might come to this conclusion, and maybe even some well-intentioned policymakers. But seriously, Barrett, is this what you’re arguing? I’m sure Barrett is a good guy, and based on his LinkedIn profile he also seems like an intelligent guy (even if he did go to Stanford ; Go Bears!). But I can’t understand how he can seriously believe that the Internet can “build” democracies.

Let’s take this point by point, shall we?

Obama, meanwhile, has made Internet freedom a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and in a speech in Beijing late last year hailed “access to information” as a “universal right.”

While it is true that the State Department is making quite a splash with its 21st Century Statecraft initiative, I’m not sure that their approach is quite as simple as it might appear.

Alec Ross, one of the architects of the 21st Century Statecraft initiative himself has said:

While these examples from Iran are compelling to many around the globe, it’s important to make clear that just as these networks were used to organize — as well as to galvanize the outside world — they were also monitored and manipulated by government forces. The same openness that allowed sympathizers in, also let in those that sought to end the dissent and punish the dissenters.

So we clearly can’t take a sort of kumbaya approach to connection technologies. They can and are being used by our enemies, like al-Qaeda, and by authoritarian regimes. But I think that this, more than anything else, makes the case for our own aggressive engagement on global networks. We need to raise our own game. We can’t curl into the fetal position because bad guys are becoming smarter about how to use technology. It just creates an imperative for us to be smarter ourselves.

In other words, they’re well aware of the potential dangers that these tools create for dissidents and that they don’t believe that they suddenly can create “revolution” in places where we might want there to be. What Barrett is arguing strikes me as pretty freakin’ kumbaya.

He goes on: For instance, the use of Twitter by protesting youths in Moldova last year to create a flash mob in the capital city of Chisinau illustrated just how powerful an organizing and communicating tool the Internet is, even when limits are placed on it.

It’s been fairly well documented that this “Twitter Revolution” was a myth.

The short version, as Ethan Zuckerman put it: “My take on it at this point is that Twitter probably wasn’t all that important in organizing the demonstrations. Where I think they were enormously important is helping people, particularly people in the Moldovan Diaspora, keep up with the events in real time.”

Same logic goes for Iran, by the way.

To the techno–utopians, [cutting off the Internet in Burma] was a splash of ice-cold water to the face, suggesting that the government in power virtually always holds the trump card. But in one way the junta’s extreme reaction actually revealed the futility of its censorship. Their choice was a binary one: accept that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether.

First off, Burma is a country of 48 million people that has only about 100,000 Internet users, according to the CIA Factbook. That’s about 0.25 percent of the population. Presumably those that do have access to the Internet are mostly within the cadre of the junta anyway. Regardless, Burma hasn’t been offline since 2007. In fact, two weeks after it cut off the Internet — that same junta restored the existing limited access.

There isn’t a binary choice of accepting that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether. Lots of authoritarian regimes ranging from China to Cuba to Iran have done precisely that. While Iran has about 35 percent Internet penetration, it’s shown that it will use online tools to intimidate, arrest, and exile online dissidents and activists. Heck, Supreme Leader Khamenei is on Twitter. Millions of regular people in China and Iran are using the Internet every single day. They just experience a much more filtered, surveilled and censored Web than we do.

As Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith wrote in their book Who Controls The Internet? back in 2006:

What we have seen, time and time again, is that physical coercion by government – the hallmark of a traditional legal system – remains far more important than anyone expected. This may sound crude and ugly and even depressing. Yet at a fundamental level, it’s the most important thing missing from most predictions of where globalization will lead, and the most significant gap in predictions about the future shape of the Internet.

Barrett also writes that the Internet is, “in many places, less than 10 years old.” That’s just blantantly wrong, at least in many of the countries that he cites. The Internet first came to Russia in 1990, to China in 1994, to Cuba in 1991, and to Iran in 1993. To be fair, the Internet was introduced in Burma in 2000.

As much as I love the Internet, it is no more capable of causing revolution than the telegraph was, as Tom Standage showed in his great book, The Victorian Internet.

The fact of the matter is that for all the talk of Twitter Revolution in Iran — the status quo has been preserved. Khamenei is still doing his thing and Ahmedinejad is still doing his. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Islamic Republic is in danger of collapse anytime soon.

I generally agree with Evgeny, although I may not be as cynical as he is. The bottom line though, is that I feel like Fox Mulder on the X-Files: I want to believe that the Internet helps to build democracies, but as of now, I simply cannot.

Geography matters in Silicon Valley. Um, duh?

No offense to Steve Lohr, but I’m not really sure what the point of his piece in today’s TimesSilicon Valley Shaped by Technology and Traffic” was. As far as I can tell, the main message is “geography matters.” Is this news to anyone, in late 2007? Really?

Alan Wiig had a much more interesting comment on it than I ever would:

Yeah, there is at a book about this from at least ten years ago. I dislike the analogy one of the people give about there being microclimates for wine and microclimates for tech. It naturalizes the tech in a completely artificial way, and ignores that, for better and worse, tech and its attendant development has destroyed the agriculture in Santa Clara. I acknowledge that the tech innovation is pretty wonderful, but it could be anywhere, where the ag is so regionally specific. What will happen if/when all the ag is forced out of the central valley by tract home suburbs built for Silicon Valley commuters? The central valley is the best ag region in the world, and it is being sacrificed for shitty, poorly designed, sprawling housing. Just like Silicon Valley itself…Why is it that the computer engineers can make fast, energy efficient microprocessors (etc) but cannot see the value of urban planning and design? San Jose has some of the worst traffic and freeway design, for no reason — it is a wealthy region full of smart, dynamic people who apparently don’t care about how much the place they live sucks. What is amazing is not that this company profiled it named for Palo Alto, but that these companies don’t relocate into the Bay Area directly — why NOT redevelop some of the poorer areas of Oakland or Alameda or even Hayward? The quality of life is better, the commutes shorter, the public infrastructure more established, etc…

The Daily Northwestern Just Discovered Evite?

The Daily Northwestern:

“Eviting” is a rising trend on Northwestern’s campus that has become a common term among students.

The site — www.evite.com — was originally intended as a corporate tool, first popular with the “Silicon Valley techie circle,” said Heather Soule, the company’s public relations manager. She said there recently has been a demographic shift toward college campuses.

Evite.com is a free event-planning Web site that was launched in 1998. InterActiveCorp, which owns Web sites such as Ticketmaster and Citysearch, bought Evite.com in 2001.

“It really is the most comprehensive place on the Web, with all the tips and tools to help you plan a party,” Soule said.

Someone tell me why this is newsworthy? And why this drivel passes for journalism at Medill?

[via Zunta]

Mr. Pibb + Red Vines = Crazy Delicious

Alright, alright, so I’m a little slow on the Chronicles of Narnia SNL rap. But it’s damn great.

Now children, as an excercise, let’s compare blog/media coverage of this event:

NYT:

Publication Date: December 27, 2005

Summary: Two white guys create the startup version of comedy. The Web helps them to get famous.

Best line: And Mr. Samberg found himself in the delicate position of having to explain to his mother that the song’s chorus is a play on words involving the name “Chronicles of Narnia” and the word chronic, a slang term for marijuana. “She’s like, ‘So is it actually about weed?’ ” Mr. Samberg said. “It makes you think it’s going to be aboit’s actually just about ‘Narnia.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, I think I get it.’ “

Worst use of an outdated late 80s/early 90s slang term combined with staccatissimo use of adjectives: For most aspiring rappers, the fastest route to having material circulated around the World Wide Web is to produce a work that is radical, cutting-edge and, in a word, cool.

Worst way to admit your coverage is way late: By the next morning, the video had burrowed its way into the nation’s cultural consciousness. (Note: A full 10 DAYS after the piece aired on SNL.)

Slate:

Publication Date: December 23, 2005

Summary: Two white guys create a cultish rap on SNL. It may be silly, but that’s precisely what makes it great.

Best line: Really, is “I’ve got mad hits like I was Rod Carew” any less ridiculous than “I love those cupcakes like McAdams loves Gosling”?

Boing Boing:

Publication Date: December 19, 2005

Summary: This SNL sketch is quite hilarious. Watch it.

Best line: Thankfully, network television does not kill all good things: The Chronic-WHAT-cles of Narnia kicks just as much tuckus as the online shorts that made Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer web celebs in the first place.

LESSON:

Here’s what the NYT is good at: providing breaking news. They’re good at telling you what happened, and providing some short term context.

Here’s what Slate is good at: Making you THINK. Challenging your ideas, and telling you what something in the news means. In this way, it doesn’t matter that much if it’s a day or two or three behind the event. People are still consuming it as news.

Here’s what BB is good at: We found this cool thing on the Web very recently (most likely within the last couple of hours) and we think you should check it out too.

CONCLUSION: When the NYT does cover something like this, they look really dumb and behind the times. I’d prefer to know more about what it means for the future of SNL/rap music (à la Slate) rather than a play-by-play of how the video was produced:

On the evening of Dec. 12, the four wrote a song about “two guys rapping about very lame, sensitive stuff,” as Mr. Samberg described it. They recorded it the following night in the office Mr. Samberg shares with Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Taccone at “SNL,” using a laptop computer that Mr. Taccone bought on Craigslist.

Then, while their colleagues were rehearsing and rewriting that Saturday’s show, the group spent the morning of Dec. 15 shooting their video with a borrowed camera, using the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea to stand in for a multiplex cinema and Mr. Taccone’s girlfriend’s sister to play a convenience-store clerk. Mr. Schaffer spent the next night – and morning – editing the video and working with technicians to bring it up to broadcast standards. Finally, at about 11 p.m. on Dec. 17, the four learned from Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of “SNL,” that “Lazy Sunday” would be shown on that night’s show.

Does anyone really care what time the group learned from SNL when it would be on the air?

USA Today should stick to its colorful pie charts

Kevin Maney’s Predictions for 2006 (USA Today):

This piece is just plain bad on so many levels. Here goes.

“Cellphone cameras will actually become useful.”

Wrong. First, I disagree with the premise that people want a camera on their phone. Yes, you can do it and have it and take pictures of your friends so that their photo comes up when they call you, but really how many of us were dying to have a camera on the phone? The camera isn’t very good, and while Maney is right that it’s difficult to get pictures onto the Internet or onto a computer, then you’ve got a new problem. He seems to forget that most cameras don’t have very good storage capacity. And by increasing the quality of the camera, you’re only going to produce larger files.

That will change in the coming year, says Bob Gove of Micron Technology, which makes the imaging chips in most camphones. Cellphone cameras are going to get good enough in 2006 to replace stand-alone digital cameras, Gove predicts.

Gee, this guy makes the imaging chips in cameras. He stands to benefit from people buying more cameras — Maney, don’t you guys at USA Today have any journalistic ethics? This guy seems like a real unbiased expert to me, yeah? Cellphone cameras are going to replace digital cameras? Give me a break. How long was it before digital cameras replaced stock film cameras? I thought so.

“We believe 2006 is the year of RSS,” says Mark Carlson, CEO of RSS company SimpleFeed. Adds author and consultant Steve Waite, “RSS is likely to take off in 2006 and could well displace e-mail as the killer app on the Net.”

Gag me with a spoon. The year of RSS? I still don’t think that most Web-surfing folks know what RSS is, much to Dave Winer’s chagrin. Yes, RSS is cool and is getting more and more attention as browsers have built-in RSS capability and such, but it’s still early. Displace email as the killer app on the Net? Dude, email’s been around a lot longer. My grandparents know how to email. They don’t know how to use an RSS reader. And by the way, what in the heck is an RSS company? Do any of them actually make money?

And finally, there is Apple’s Jobs — tech’s celebrity superstar. He seems due. Maybe he’ll humiliate a bumbling underling on stage at Macworld, unleashing a torrent of stories saying Jobs is the Lord Voldemort of managers. Or someone will discover malicious spyware hidden deep inside iTunes.

WTF?

Fuck Space.

InfoWeek:

Q: Will there be an acquisition in the security space?
ELLISON: Sure, it’s possible.

ARGH! I hate the use of the word “space” in business/technology journalism. It’s so meaningless. What’s wrong with these other possibilities?

Will there be a security acquisition?
Will there be an acquisition in the security sector?
Will there be acquisition in security?

I’m reading John Battelle‘s The Search right now and he’s as guilty of it as anyone. I swear, if I hear about it one more time . . .

Peter Rojas is my hero

Engadget:

Gotta love how TechWeb can publish two stories about the Tablet PC with completely conflicting headlines within hours of each other. Better still, both have the same source, namely a research firm called In-Stat. One article focused on In-StatÕs recent report about the state of the Tablet PC (which talked about how after three years of mixed success Tablet PC sales were about to start growing), while the other was based on a chat with an In-Stat analyst about how the future of the Tablet PC OS is cloudy given that Microsoft is launching its new Ultra Mobile PC platform in a couple of years.

“I’ve wiped the Internet!?!? I don’t even have a modem!”

Via Boing Boing:

CNN:

(CNN) — In 1994, people had to call the bank to check their balances. Or inquire in person, or wait for a paper statement to arrive in the mail. Baseball box scores were found in the newspaper. Weather forecasts came over the phone from the weather bureau, or on TV.

Back then, most Americans still had to lick a stamp to send mail.

Then along came the Internet, and an experimental browser called Mosaic, followed by an improved browser from Netscape. And if you had a computer, you discovered a new way to this cool, new thing called the World Wide Web. Mosaic and Netscape were the first popular connection to what came to be called the information superhighway.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, less than one in five Americans were online in 1995. Today, the majority of Americans are surfing the Web, exchanging e-mail, reading bank statements and ball scores, checking the weather. Today, Pew says, two out of every three Americans spend time online.

The World Wide Web has transformed the way people live, work and play. People can play travel agent and book all the elements of a vacation online. They can arrange for their bills to be paid automatically while they are gone. They can put a hold on mail delivery, find directions to tourist attractions and get a long-term weather forecast before they pack.