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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Connectedness -> Conflict?

David Ignatius has written a provocative op-ed about the impact of the Internet on world stability and progressivism. He says that "connectedness" can lead to a bad divide, where elites in developing and/or authoritarian countries can end up plugging in and virtually hanging out with the developed world, no longer being in the mix locally, and thus not tempering, well, ignorance there.  For example, he says, during the Shah's Westernized reign, "The Iranian modernizers had lost touch with the masses," paving the way for the revolution.  (Hard to blame the Internet for that since the Pahlavi dynasty ended in 1979, but I gather the claim is that the Internet makes losing touch that much easier.)

The other phenomenon he suggests is that the Net enables the stoking of rage thanks to "persistent, real-time stimuli" and a set of online communities where extremists can gather and make each other even more extreme.  (A la Cass Sunstein's worries about the Daily We and the limits of group decisionmaking.)

I'm not persuaded.  If one looks at a repressive regime with easy Internet access and sees problems arise, the problem isn't the Internet access, it's the regime itself, perhaps often because the regime finds it useful to stoke rage against things other than its shortcomings.  The Shah's problem was not that he was too progressive.

One hypothesis: repressive regimes with Internet access fear repercussions from one of two places: masses who want modernity, and masses who don't.  For example, China has to worry about a public getting hungry for news instead of propaganda, seeking an expansion of liberal rights.  Thus it filters the Internet as much as it can, without making a big deal -- bite but no bark.  Saudi Arabia has a regime that fears instability not from its liberal reformers, but from its religious fundamentalists who might seek a theocracy to replace a monarchy.  Thus it filters the Internet not very much or well, but makes a big deal -- bark but no bite -- so as to appease conservative elements that worry about the Internet's cultural effect.

For a country that's a democracy or a China, the fears of mob action because it's been separated from the temporizing influence of its elitist upper class seem remote.  A Saudi Arabia may have to worry -- but again, in any cases of (un)smart mobs, such as those found in the Danish cartoon controversy, the major factors leading to trouble are the underlying conditions of the regime and its carelessness in stoking flames that can get out of control.

Posted by jz on February 23, 2006 at 07:47 PM in Information and Technology | Permalink

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