We will not change the world with memes alone

Internet political scientist Evgeny Morozov has written a powerful essay in the New Republic about problems with the popular idea that the internet is an inherently democratizing force. The occasion for his ire is Steven Johnson's new book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. Morozov upbraids Johnson and his cohorts for "internet-centrism," or the belief that there is something inherently liberating about the structure of the internet because it is decentralized. But is the internet actually decentralized? Morozov thinks it isn't:

In [Steven] Johnson's world . . . transfers of power happen smoothly. It's not hard to see why: his Internet-centric theory of politics is shallow. Wikipedia, remember, is a site that anyone can edit! As a result, Johnson cannot account for the background power conditions and inequalities that structure the environment into which his bright reform ideas are introduced. Once those background conditions are factored in, it becomes far less obvious that increasing decentralization and participation is always desirable. Even Wikipedia tells us a more complex story about empowerment: yes, anyone can edit it, but not anyone can see their edits preserved for posterity. The latter depends, to a large extent, on the politics and the power struggles inside Wikipedia . . .

Then Morozov goes on to question whether decentralization is really the best way to usher in social change after all:

If one assumes that political reform is long, slow, and painful, hierarchies and centralizing strategies can be productive. After all, they can keep the movement on target and give it some coherent shape. Ideas on their own do not change the world; ideas that are coupled with smart institutions might. "Not by memes alone" would be an apt slogan for any contemporary social movement. Alas, this basic insight-that political reform cannot be reduced to the wars of memes and aesthetics alone, even if the Internet offers an effective platform for waging them-has mostly been lost on the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds-because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia-borders on the suicidal.

If you are interested at all in how the internet intersects with politics, you'll want to read the rest of Morozov's incredible essay, full of subtle insights and amusingly sarcastic commentary.

Photo of Occupy Wall Street via We Know Memes