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'Hugo Chávez Gets a Twitter Account' -- Caryl in 'The National Interest'

RFE Washington Chief Editor Christian Caryl reviews four books on information technology and the media for "The National Interest."


"Hugo Chávez Gets a Twitter Account"

With reviews in the May/June issue of "The National Interest" of four books on new technologies and networks that are transforming media, RFE Washington Chief Editor Christian Caryl asserts that the role of traditional media has already been “irrevocably altered; that’s probably a good thing.” But, he adds, “Let us not succumb to naiveté. By all means, let us celebrate the Web when it is a force for good. But in the end, we, as its creators, are responsible for technology’s dark side. Debates over how to manage our accomplishments are only now beginning.”

To follow are summaries of Caryl's reviews.

  • Clay Shirky’s "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age" presents the upbeat view. Shirky emphasizes that social media will “bring out the best in us” because “a densely interconnected world must necessarily be a happier one.” Caryl warns, however, about seeing social media as all-powerful and unique catalysts of change:
“I’m sure that Facebook played a vital role in helping Egyptian protesters organize. Yet the more closely we examine any of the cases of political upheaval where social media are said to play a role, the more complex the picture becomes. The same people who got the revolution rolling in Tahrir Square early this year started a Facebook page for a workers’ protest back in 2008 that quickly gained seventy thousand followers. But that movement soon fizzled out. And then there’s the intriguing fact that the biggest demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere came out only after the Egyptian government had completely switched off the Internet in the country. If you talk to many activists in the Middle East, they’ll tell you that the most powerful social medium during the recent turmoil was not the Internet or mobile phones but Al Jazeera, the satellite-TV network that has, for the first time, created an instantaneous public space for the entire Arabic-speaking region – notwithstanding Shirky’s contempt for the passivity of television.”
  • Evgeny Morozov’s "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" goes even further showing how the Internet can be used for destructive ends. Caryl writes:
“Indeed, the notion that selfless cooperation automatically leads to positive outcomes flies in the face of human experience. Homicidal religious fanatics and ethnic cleansers don’t see themselves as bad guys but as heroes, nobly sacrificing themselves for the cause. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have both perfected the art of sowing their messages across dispersed networks of autonomous online sympathizers. Sure, the Web helps insurgents – but not necessarily the ones that Shirky had in mind. And yes, evildoers often prefer to keep their sins in the dark – but there are also times when they opt to bask in publicity. The jihadis in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely send videos of their goriest executions to randomly selected mobile phones to stress the risks of collaboration with foreign troops.”
  • David Leigh and Luke Harding’s "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" looks at the ethical dilemmas posed by Assange’s digital muckracking. Caryl gives this insight:
“Assange depends on the establishment journalists for credibility and reach, and they depend on him for the sensational source material. But the culture gap between the two remains vast throughout. Despite their enthusiasm for the hot stories provided by their odd new friend, the reporters at the Guardian and other news organizations find themselves pressed to argue the case for hoary, old journalistic values. Assange, the product of a counterculture upbringing in Australia’s hippie outback, has a hacker’s ingrained belief that any limits on the flow of information inherently equate to censorship. Assange’s original plan for WikiLeaks was to set up a site that would allow whistle-blowers to self-publish without the fear that governments or companies would be able to track them down.”
  • In discussing Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," Caryl offers:
“Freedom of information” is a wonderful phrase. Just to be clear, I am in favor. And I don’t, for example, see any reasonable grounds for the prosecution of Julian Assange. But we should put one thing very plainly: the Internet and its attendant products are revolutionizing the scope, quality, and velocity of the information available to all of us, and our accustomed ideas about freedom will be affected. These new technologies do not automatically enhance our freedom; they complicate it.”