Lots of people have lots of complaints about the Internet, and some of those complaints are based in fact. One that I hadn’t heard before, until US Secretary of State John Kerry brought it up in recent remarks to embassy personnel in Brazil, is that the Internet makes it “much harder to govern, much harder to organize people, much harder to find the common interest …”
Sounds kind of backward, doesn’t it? From protests to petitions, publicity campaigns to meetup schedules, the Internet has become the preeminent tool of political organization in the two decades since the World Wide Web debuted. The advance of technology has involved more people in political action, and more effectively, than anything before it. It substantially enables us to govern ourselves in far more effective — and far more consensual — ways than Kerry and the gang he works for could ever hope to.
But, of course, that’s not what Kerry means by “organization” or “government.” As a foot soldier of the political class, he uses those terms to mean putting the people he rules into lockstep motion in physical, mental and financial support of goals set by and for the state (the only “common interest” he recognizes). He’s happy to let us color the picture, but only so long as he gets to draw the lines we color within. And he takes comfort in the knowledge that other states will manage similar feats among their own subjects, reducing the number of real players in global polity and economy to a few political class representatives and simplifying the task of shearing billions of sheep.
The Internet is, from that perspective, his worst nightmare. It erases political borders and lets people living under the rule of different states mingle, discuss, debate … and agree … and organize … and act … with no need for approval or permission from the world’s John Kerrys or Barack Obamas or Vladimir Putins or Adly Mansours.
Kerry’s lamentation isn’t the first such, nor will it be the last: The American and global political classes recognize fast, cheap communication between their subjects as the death knell for their own tenuous grip on power. The bloated, bureaucratic, hierarchal, snail-paced organizations on which states rely are no match for the distributed, networked, ad hoc organizations that the world’s masses can put together in hours and adapt to changing circumstances in minutes.
That’s why the worm has turned in terms of state-to-state tutelage.
Back in the 1980s, the politicians of comparatively liberal states like the US encouraged “constructive engagement” with more oppressive states like South Africa and the People’s Republic of China. More talk, more trade, we were told, would encourage those states to “liberalize.”
These days, it’s the alleged “liberals” who envy — and increasingly attempt to emulate — things like the Great Firewall of China and Mubarak’s ability to shut down the Internet in Egypt.
Given the choice between a totalitarian state and no state at all, people like Kerry will choose the former every time. And that is always the ultimate choice — not just for him, but for us as well.
Thomas L. Knapp is Senior News Analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org).