The debates presented in this week’s readings, although cloaked in the lingo of contemporary communications theory and social media, in many ways reflect the dueling visions of international relations that have driven the field since its inception.
Particularly interesting, from my perspective, were the quotes from government officials cited in Comor & Bean regarding the nature and the potential of “engagement” in the digital sphere.
Although couched in modern terminology, the positions being argued for regarding the potential of “engagement” to manufacture peace were strongly reminiscent to me of a nearly forgotten text by British philosopher Norman Angell called, “The Great Illusion.” For Angell, the normalization of economic relations would become the stabilizing force necessary for a Kantian perpetual peace in Europe. Increased codependence due to economic factors, an increased sense of community due to the cross-pollination of ideas and beliefs resulting from trade, and other factors would, according to Angell, emerge to stabilize and cement a lasting peace in the Europe. Unfortunately for Angell, although many of his arguments regarding economic interdependence held true, the book was also published in 1910, and then republished in 1913 on the eve of World War I. Despite the destruction of Angell’s heady optimism on the ghastly battlefields of the western front, and the post-war emergence of realism as oppositional to the idealism of Angell, the thread of idealism still holds in international relations, most notably in the United States.
Angell’s optimism is particularly reflected in Shirky’s “Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change” wherein social media is seen as an inevitable driver of pro-democratic revolution, and that the only statistical outliers to this process (namely Belarus, Iran, and Thailand) are examples where brutal government crackdowns utilized violence to disperse protests. Intriguingly, quotes from government officials, both within Comor & Bean and around the net, reflect some of this heady optimism.
Fascinating to me, also though, was some of the evidence of duplicity that quickly emerges. In particular, Shirky’s discussion of the “instrumental approach” to internet freedom, namely a call from the U.S government for nations to cease censorship activities of existing sites falls conspicuously flat (much as the author observes). In particular, it is difficult to take at face value the idea that access to online information is a necessary human freedom, when evidence also shows that internet technology is being tooled into a weapon of war. The Stuxnet computer virus, for example, deliberately tailored to derail Iran’s nuclear program, certainly doesn’t encourage the breakdown of digital borders.
This duplicity makes calls for removal of Iran’s “electronic curtain” somewhat difficult to accept at face value.
Furthermore, I find it hard to believe calls from the U.S. government for nations to repeal internet censorship when we, in fact, engage in more or less the same practices (albeit generally more subtly) when we feel our political (i.e Wikileaks) or economic interests are being threatened by online content. Isn’t this sort of double-standard exactly the sort of thing that makes others so frustrated with us?
(This blog post is exactly at 500 words, with hyperlinks embedded in the text. In the interest of making all content accessible, however, I feel it would be appropriate to relist the linked pages here for simplicity’s sake.)
-Comments by Secretary of State Clinton @ the 2012 Social Good Summit http://mashable.com/2012/09/22/social-media-diplomacy/
– Comments by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice regarding Twitter use by the DeptState @ the 2012 Social Good Summit http://mashable.com/2012/09/23/us-ambassador-susan-rice/
– Comments by President Obama regarding Iran’s “Electronic Curtain” http://mashable.com/2012/03/20/iran-electronic-curtain/
– Accusations that a US/Israeli collaboration led to the Stuxnet virus which crippled Iran’s nuclear program http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/06/confirmed-us-israel-created-stuxnet-lost-control-of-it/
– An Example of a web domain seized by the U.S. government, copyright protection or censorship? http://www.megaupload.com/