Maybe the Internet Isn’t a Fantastic Tool for Democracy After All

 in NewYork Magazine: “My favorite story about the internet is the one about the anonymous Japanese guy who liberated Czechoslovakia. In 1989, as open dissent was spreading across the country, dissidents were attempting to coordinate efforts outside the watchful eye of Czechoslovak state security. The internet was a nascent technology, and the cops didn’t use it; modems were banned, and activists were able to use only those they could smuggle over the border, one at a time. Enter our Japanese guy. Bruce Sterling, who first told the story of the Japanese guy in a 1995 Wired article, says he talked to four different people who’d met the quiet stranger, but no one knew his name. What really mattered, anyway, is what he brought with him: “a valise full of brand-new and unmarked 2400-baud Taiwanese modems,” which he handed over to a group of engineering students in Prague before walking away. “The students,” Sterling would later write, “immediately used these red-hot 2400-baud scorcher modems to circulate manifestos, declarations of solidarity, rumors, and riot news.” Unrest expanded, the opposition grew, and within months, the Communist regime collapsed.

Is it true? Were free modems the catalyst for the Velvet Revolution? Probably not. But it’s a good story, the kind whose logic and lesson have become so widely understood — and so foundational to the worldview of Silicon Valley — as to make its truth irrelevant. Isn’t the best way to fortify the town square by giving more people access to it? And isn’t it nice to know, as one storied institution and industry after another falls to the internet’s disrupting sword, that everything will be okay in the end — that there might be some growing pains, but connecting billions of people to one another is both inevitable and good? Free speech will expand, democracy will flower, and we’ll all be rich enough to own MacBooks. The new princes of Silicon Valley will lead us into the rational, algorithmically enhanced, globally free future.

Or, they were going to, until earlier this month. The question we face now is: What happens when the industry destroyed is professional politics, the institutions leveled are the same few that prop up liberal democracy, and the values the internet disseminates are racism, nationalism, and demagoguery?

Powerful undemocratic states like China and Russia have for a while now put the internet to use to mislead the public, create the illusion of mass support, and either render opposition invisible or expose it to targeting…(More)”