Evgeny Morozov pokes what he calls “digital activism academia” in the eye in a recent post on Foreign Policy’s net.effect blog, calling it “useless”. I guess “different” would have been more polite, but whatever.
I think Morozov offers a useful, if sometimes exaggerated and polemical, counterweight to what he calls the “Internet helps democracy” meme in the various public debates he enters into. As he points out, the two major takes that play in mass-mediated (and many online) debates seems to be the “Internet helps democracy” meme, and then Morozov’s own “the Internet doesn’t help democracy” meme. That’s a nice he-said, she-said right there.
Meanwhile, academia is, as always, engaged in its own debates, which may strike some as useless, or maybe just different from what Morozov et al are doing. Insofar as there is a “field” (as he suggests) studying “digital activism” (and there really isn’t, though there is a debate of sorts that criss-cross communications studies, political science, sociology, and law, and often lives a precarious life at the very margins of each), my take on it is that it is beginning to move beyond the two-meme-slugfest of help/doesn’t help, and to the “it’s all very complicated” terrain where most empirically oriented scholars feel most at home, and where truths–if not always useful or convenient truths–are often to be found.
The work of people like Bruce Bimber, Matthew Hindman, Andrew Chadwick, and Philip Howard (and the “next wave” like my friends and colleagues Daniel Kreiss and David Karpf) may not offer much ammunition for Morozov and the people he argues with on television and on the net. But since these combattants seem to be doing just fine on their own, maybe it is a good–dare I say useful?–thing that other people turn to more rigorous analysis–whether quantitative, qualitative, or some combination–of what the hell is going on. Even if it takes time to do so.