As of late, the term “iPod liberalism” has caught my attention.

But, what exactly does this term mean?

Upon unpacking such a concept, an interesting narrative comes to light. We already know that liberalism is a political orientation that favours social change through legislative means, rather than via revolution. In turn, one can assume that “iPod liberalism” must advocate the dropping of iPods, as opposed to bombs, as the solution to a brewing rebellion.

STRATFOR’s George Friedman puts it this way, iPod liberalism is “the idea that anyone who listens to rock ‘n’ roll on an iPod, writes blogs and knows what it means to Twitter must be an enthusiastic supporter of Western liberalism.”

Essentially, “iPod liberalism” is the view that an individual, who embraces even certain superficial aspects of Western culture, must also harbour amicable feelings toward the Western world en masse. This assumption is construed to even that of unwavering support for Western ideals: democracy, capitalism, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Undoubtedly, there are clear problems with this notion.

Evgeny Morozov is one outspoken critic of the term. He adamantly disagrees with the utopian assumption that technological innovation always works to promote freedom and democracy. In stark contrast, Morozov draws attention to countess situations, where the Internet has actually helped oppressive regimes stifle dissent, to prove his counterpoint.

In order to grasp Morozov’s logic, it is crucial to first develop an understanding of  his background. Hailing from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, he is no stranger to state-controlled media. Upon graduation, the admittedly young and idealist Morozov went on to work for an NGO that used new media to promote democratization. Interestingly, through his work, Morozov grew increasingly disillusioned with utopian views of technology. This is because, over time, he came to realize that “dictatorships do not crumble so easily.” In fact, with the onslaught of these new digital technologies “some get even more repressive.” Some time later, with dampened spirits, Morozov began researching the potential for the Internet to impede democracy.

According to Morozov, cyber optimists naively believe that, with copious amounts of connectivity and technological devices, democracy is inevitable. It is this very assumption that underlies the notion of “iPod liberalism” –  the idea “that everyone who owns an iPod must be a liberal.” Morozov found this sentiment problematic because “it confuses the intended versus actual uses of technology.”

Here, the idea is that no technology is ever used the way it was originally planned. Clay Shirky puts it this way, “these tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Overall, while many assume that social media technology is a catalyst for democratic progress, we must also question its potential to be an opiate for the masses.

Today, governments have the power to convince their civilian populations that they are more involved in the governing process than they truly are. Conceivably, any state can engage in practices that lead their citizens to believe they have at least some say in their government’s doings.  Unknown to the civilian populous, however, is that the exercise itself is purely for the regime’s gain. This is because such an exercise only works to provide the leadership a scapegoat if their policy fails. That scapegoat is the newly empowered public.

Interestingly, an additional unforeseen problematic component is that the social media technologies – used to organize and facilitate activist movements, are accessible to all. For instance,  in June 2009, digital activism via social media sites actually afforded the Iranian authorities access to open-source intelligence on the vast networks and cells of anti-government activists. The blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook actually helped the Iranian government track down dissenters via their own activist launch pads.

Morozov would say that for technology to be considered a true agent for change, we need to stop thinking about computers, or iPods, per capita. On the contrary, we need to begin empowering real people within our societies.

Perhaps, Morozov had it right all along. Maybe it is time we question and “shatter some of our utopian assumptions and actually start doing something about it.”  For, in the end, technology will only get us so far.

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