Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Web 2.0 and Authoritarian Regimes

April 14th, 2010 · 2 Comments

What’s the role of Web 2.0 tools in the political sphere, especially in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes?  Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky take on this and other issues regarding the real power (or lack of it) of Twitter, Facebook and other social networking programs that have been hailed as revolutionary democratizing tools in this Edge conversation.

Here’s a small sampling of their engagement:

MOROZOV: It’s all a matter of questions that we want to ask. If the question we are asking is “How does the Internet impact the chances for democratization in a country like China?”, we have to look beyond what it does to citizens’ ability to communicate with each other or their supporters in the West. I recently found a very fascinating piece of statistics: apparently, the Chinese government spent $120 billion by 2003 on e-government and something like $70 million on the Golden Shield, the censorship project. You compare those two numbers — $120 billion on e-government and $70 million on censorship — and you can sense that the Chinese are really excited by e-government. No surprises here: it can make their government more efficient, making it seem more transparent and resistant to corruption. This would only strengthen the government’s legitimacy. Will it modernize the Chinese Communist Party? It will. Will it result in the establishment of democratic institutions that we expect in liberal democracies? It may not. If we want to know whether China is moving closer to embracing fully functioning democratic institutions and what kind of role the Internet would play in this process, there are no easy clear cut answers here.

SHIRKY: This is one of the really interesting things about these questions, which is that you very quickly get a kind of philosophic vertigo. You think you’re asking a question about Twitter, and suddenly you realize you’re asking a question about, say, Hayek and markets. My bias is that non-democratic governments are lousy at managing market economies over the long haul. That’s a baseline assumption, and it affects the context of digital publics.

With that assumption as background, one of the questions you could ask is how much is political sensitivity of the regime titrated to the price of oil? If oil goes back above $100 a barrel, the Iranian regime can do anything they like. They could destroy the intelligentsia in all of Tehran and still rule the country because they’d have so much cash from oil. If it goes under $50 and stays under $50, on the other hand, their ability to hold down populist uprising will be severely compromised.

MOROZOV: Whatever the bias, the truth is that we did have revolutions before Twitter.

Good, thoughtful dialogue here.

Tags: censorship

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