Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yes, Virginia, there is a Twitter© revolution

I appreciate The Economist sponsoring a debate on whether or not the internet is a net force for democracy. While that may seem too obvious seriously to question, one should not underestimate the malicious uses to which technolgy can be put if a repressive regime has sufficiently talented hackers in its employ. I posted the following to the debate discussion board:
Dear Sir,

It would be interesting to simulate a war game between an internet-equipped Lenin and Trotsky, on the one hand, and a similarly armed Pyotr Rachkovsky, on the other, to see who would win. Pessimists should doubtless be given their full due in this matter: in even not very sophisticated hands, the internet offers countless opportunities for malicious operators to discredit and disrupt forces of reform through planted posts, doctored e-mails and photos, and dishonest chat participants, not to mention more standard tactics such as denial of service attacks, stolen credit card and bank account numbers, and the like.

In the end, as I see it, this comes down to the old saying that the only way to get rid of alligators is to drain the swamp. The manifestation of the internet in modern life is such that the swamp can't be drained. Mubarak turned off the internet once; no one imagines that its proponents are idly sitting around hoping no one thinks to do so again. Safeguards are no doubt already being built. Technology experts polled by a journalist for the website Tech Republic for their views on Joe Lieberman's fantastic proposal to let an American President shut down the net responded that first, it probably couldn't be done and second, the net is so intricately connected with every aspect of modern life that if a western government tried it, the law of unintended consequences would exact its comical revenge.

The net, like Wordsworth's world, is too much with us and, absent a civilization-ending meteor strike, it will never be otherwise. It is true, certainly, that there are virulent pockets on the net even now who deny the holocaust and global warming, doubt our President's citizenship, insist on the deleterious effects of vaccines, and call for the relaxation of the age of consent for reprehensible reasons. Those diseased enclaves also will not go away, or will do so only to be replaced by other things equally as bad.

Having said that, the redoubtable Rachkovsky, were he back in operation, could recruit half the population to harass the other half, and he could still not, finally, overcome the fact that the net provides an unstoppable channel for any view of any description to become accepted worldwide, an opportunity limited only by the rhetorical skills of its advocates. Repression, grievous as it is, is like the Gulf oil spill; eventually, it is dissolved in the sheer volume of the medium in which it is suspended, and the oyster beds are found to have survived. This is no utopian hope but a simple reflection of the countless paths that cross online, and the myriad of opinions that travel them. Each has a hearer and an advocate; none can finally be silenced.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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