Gary Stager recently tweeted me a link to Evgeny Morozov’s article “Techno-utopian fail.” Of the “techno-utopian” view which predicts social media will lead to democratic revolutions around the world in repressive countries like China and Iran, Morozov asserts:
But this is an anachronistic view of the world. Modern authoritarian states have eagerly (but selectively) embraced globalisation to provide their citizens with at least a modicum of self-actualisation without ever abandoning their authoritarianism. Their young people travel the world, learn English, use Skype and poke each other on Facebook – all while competing for comfortable jobs with state-owned companies. We are entering the age of “accommodating authoritarianism” – and the internet has played a crucial (though hardly the only) role in providing many of the accommodations.
I agree with Morozov’s point that current leaders of countries like China want to “selectively” embrace globalization. See my post from last month, “Learning about Xinjiang, Urumqui, and China’s Uygur People” for more on these ideas as they relate specifically to China, as well as my podcast returning from China at the start of November 2009, “Reflections on Social Media, School Change, 21st Century Learning Skills, and China.” It is certainly naive to think the mere availability of social media tools to dissidents in relatively closed societies will lead to immediate and facile democratic change. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss social media entirely as a powerful force for communication and change in these contexts. We also should not underestimate the importance of leaders in countries like China and Middle Eastern nations being EDUCATED in the West. While CURRENT leaders may favor selectively embracing globalization, future leaders may not.
This article from Evgeny Morozov reminds me of Steven Levy’s July 2009 article for Wired Magazine, “Booting Up Baghdad: Tech Execs Take a Tour in Iraq.” The article tells the story of a group of Silicon Valley CEOs and US tech company representatives traveling to Iraq with the U.S. State Department to meet with Iraqi leaders. Their discussions were to focus on the potential for social media technologies to promote economic development within Iraq, as well as the development of an engaged and participatory electorate. The article is an eye-opener, as was the trip for the traveling Silicon Valley CEOs, about the horrible status of Iraq’s infrastructure and the other challenges faced by its leaders in seeking to rebuild as well as build anew a country caught between worlds and worldviews. Echoing Morozov’s point about young people in many countries aspiring to hold “comfortable jobs with state-owned companies,” Levy describes how the entire concept of entrepreneurism is literally foreign to most of the Iraqis the U.S. delegation met on their trip. Iraq does not simply face challenges of infrastructure and security, it also faces huge obstacles in education and the vocational worldviews of many of its citizens.
One of the most thought provoking points made by Morozov in his article regards the political, economic, and lifestyle “choices” which are open to citizens of planet earth today. Morozov contends the dominant choices are fundamentally hedonistic. He writes:
In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology. The recent outburst of techno-utopianism in the West may thus be just another futile attempt to imagine a world where the purest ideal of Athenian democracy, uncorrupted by special interests and popular culture, is not only possible but could actually be facilitated by its more corrupt, frivolous, and somewhat culpable western sibling. This, of course, is an illusion. Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity – the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.
The central identification of “The West” and our values with hedonism and the unbridled pursuit of self-interests at the expense of all other values is a big problem. Frank Viviano’s October 2003 article for National Geographic Magazine, “Kingdom on Edge: Saudi Arabia” (which unfortunately is not available in its entirety online) provides some worthwhile insights into this clash of cultures and worldviews as they apply specifically in the Arab world. Viviano writes:
Jeddah, in the middle of the night, is the paradox of contemporary Saudi Arabia writ large. “We are being carried in two directions at once, backward and forward,” says Suad al-Yamani, a Saudi neurologist who sees, in her patients, the disorienting effects of changes that have rocketed a deeply conservative society from the 7th to the 21st century in the span of a few decades. The stakes are beyond exaggeration, for Saudi Arabia is not simply another traditional country coping with change. As keeper of the Muslim holy cities, Mecca and Medina, it serves as the chief custodian of Islam and the spiritual home of 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.
Unlike Morozov, I do not view the options available to us as citizens of the United States or to citizens of China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or other nations as simply “hedonism with stable prosperity” and “hedonism with unstable prosperity.” While the marketing focus of our corporate-dominated economy today is clearly the consumption of ever-greater quantities of goods and services, this is not the highest value to which we as human beings should orient our lives and our nations. Living as I do in central Oklahoma, I can only begin to imagine what incredible stresses and challenges are faced by the citizens and residents of other nations by globalization. I reject Madonna, Britney Spears, and other celebrities as the cultural icons of our broader society. Many of us in the West stand for and support far more than mere “hedonism” in our culture and economy. While many voices in mainstream media continue to broadcast this ultimately destructive swan song of hedonism through various channels, social media tools offer “the rest of us” tools to share, cooperate, and organize for collective action around a different set of values.
One of the most important, tangible things we can and MUST do in “the West” is continue to reform our political systems to reduce and eliminate corruption. Mainstream media as well as social media communications platforms offer desperately needed windows into the corrupt backroom dealmaking which take place in ALL governments, but are not brought forth into the LIGHT of public scrutiny in far too many cases. We need look no further afield for dramatic examples of this than the deals cut to pass health care reform in Washington DC this month. Corrupt politics like that revealed by this latest round of “political dealmaking” should not only anger us as voters and taxpayers, it should also galvanize us to support the work of groups like The Sunlight Foundation to systemically reform our political system in support of values like openness, transparency, and true accountability.
No, social media is not going to single-handedly bring about a transition to peaceful and prosperous climates of self-determination in nations like China, Iran and Iraq. Social media is and will continue to be leveraged to powerful effect by those seeking political and cultural changes, however. What form SHOULD those changes take? I contend they should be far more than moves to embrace “the hedonism of the West.” Instead of focusing the bulk of our attention, efforts, and money on “fixing” the problems faced by other nations, I believe leaders of the United States should be forced by populist demands to clean up “our own house” and thereby demonstrate by example the political and moral benefits available within an open, participatory political culture which values open expression as well as debate. We must eliminate earmarks by giving the line-item veto to our President and making other systemic political changes. It should not and must not take a ridiculously long 2000 page bill to do this. We must reform campaign finance with systemic changes which limit the opportunities of corporate interests to buy votes and legislators at the federal and state levels. We must stop our insane race to run up even more deficits, spending our children’s inheritance, and adopt responsible fiscal policies which serve the long term interests of our electorate and not merely the short-term interests of our corporations.
There is a LOT of work which we must do as voters, constituents, and leaders in the United States. Will Twitter and social media be important and powerful tools for this needed populist, political movement? In my view, YES: sin una duda. Can social media be a powerful platform for communication and change in other nations around the globe? The answer is the same: Of course. One does not have to be a “techno-utopian” to understand as well as embrace the powerful, constructive potentials of social media to help determined groups of individuals change our world.
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