Wired Italy's efforts have paid off: the Internet has been shortlisted as a candidate for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (along with dissidents and human rights activists from Russia and China). Here are five reasons why the Nobel committee should not give the award to this quirky candidate:
Reason 1: It doesn't deserve it. Simply put, there are worthier technologies. Why not award the prize to the book, the telegraph, the radio, the syringe, the mobile phone, the Xerox machine, the pacemaker, or the water pump? Arguably, they have had a much greater impact on society — and many of them are still changing the lives of many people all over the world, particularly those in the "bottom billion". How about 5 billion people who are not yet online? Aren't there technologies which are more universal and life-changing?
In short, if the impetus behind the Internet's nomination is to recognize technology's (often) positive role in development and democratization, there are much better candidates. Discussions of the Internet's social and political impact in the popular media and the blogosphere are already so ahistorical — it's as if it's so unique we don't need to know anything about history, anthropology or sociology of societies which technology is supposedly remaking — that bestowing a Nobel prize on the Internet would only make matters worse.
Reason 2: It could kill Internet activism in authoritarian states. Scared by the prospect of yet another Twitter revolution, authoritarian governments are already getting very suspicious of Internet users. If in the past, bloggers were written off as some "geeks and freaks" — at best irrelevant, at worst kind of crazy — now Internet users are primarily perceived as a threat. Democratic forces would arguably have much more success with the Internet if they were still perceived as "geeks and freaks'. Now, of course, they can't do it as the government sees them as a political force. Most of these fears are, of course, bogus: the only reason why authoritarian governments are so scared is because of overblown reports in the Western media.
Internet activists would have a much easier and safer existence if the Internet got "Nobel Cutest Cat Award" and regained its reputation as a hangout place for "geeks and freaks". Let's work towards that goal. Yes, this would also involve the US State Department being somewhat less vocal about all the great work they do with social time; at times, it looks as if the State Dept's social media team interprete the term "open government" just a tad too literally — can't they act without leaking everything to the press for a change?
Reason 3: It would undermine the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize. Why reward people who were acting solely in commercial interest and it just so happened that their product/invention was used for some noble purpose? Take Twitter: when the "Twitter revolution" in Moldova happened, most of Twitter's senior executives probably couldn't place that country on the map. A few months later, however, they were already saying inane things like "Twitter has become more a triumph of humanity than a triumph of technology". I wouldn't be surprised if Twitter would now take an even more aggressive line and try to rewrite history, arguing that they helped to spearhead the protests in Moldova or Iran.
But the Voice of America Twitter isn't: commitment to world peace does not rank high on the list of Twitter's objectives (for all the good reasons — they are in the business of making money, after all — leave the world peace to Bono). Don't we want to award this prize to someone who at least WANTS a more democratic and peaceful future and WORKS towards it? I'm all for leverage the unexpected consequences of technology — especially the positive ones — but we are not awarding "Nobel Most Random Good Deeds" prize.
Reason 4: It would stifle a very important and still unfolding debate about the Internet's broader impact on society. If the Internet gets the Nobel, it would further advance techno-utopian babble about the "hive mind" and ultimate peace that already occupies so many of the pages of Wired magazine (not to mention blog posts and tweets!). The debate about the democratizing potential of the Internet — both in authoritarian and democratic contexts — is far from over, and while I tolerate the possibility, however abysmal, that the Wired school of thought may be right, I think we've got good 20 or 30 years of debate ahead of us before we can say anything conclusively.
The dangerous rise of direct democracy, the paralysis of the political process under the pressure of over-empowered grassroots movement, the polarization of public debate, the end of the national conversation, not to mention new opportunities for surveillance and control — the Internet may be directly or indirectly responsible for all of these activities (the original assumption of Wired Italy — that the Internet will "destroy hate and conflict and to propagate peace and democracy" — is even more contentious). We don't know for sure — but this is no reason to stop the inchoate debate. If anything, we are not spending enough time talking about these issues in an intelligent manner; chances are we'd be talking about them even less if the Nobel goes to the Internet.
Reason 5: It would convince world leaders that politics is secondary to technology. In one of my columns about Google's decision to pull out of China, I brought up the concept of 'computational arrogance': Google's unshakable belief that given enough engineers, all global problems are solvable. In Google's case, it's probably a healthier ideology to have than 'philanthropic arrogance' — a naive belief that throwing enough money at an issue would eventually solve it, so prevalent in Western governments and international development institutions — but it's still false (this, probably, explains the failure of Google.org). But it's not just technology companies who inhabit this dream world.
Let's face it: most people in positions of power don't get the Internet. We definitely don't want some World Bank bureaucrat drawing false conclusions from the Wired-like enthusiasm about what the Internet can do. It may ultimately be an inept comparison, but I am increasingly noting similarities between the rhetoric of open government folks and those who were pushing for the establishment of elections as the means to democratize authoritarian states. Elections, like open data, are necessary but almost never enough.
Chances are that given enough time and resources, authoritarian leaders will learn how to trick their "online monitors" just like they have learned how to trick their "electoral observers". It does not mean we shouldn't be trying to make authoritarian regimes more transparent (and, hopefully, even more accountable, hardly the same thing) — but the success of those campaigns depends on factors that have nothing to do with the Internet — and this is where we need to concentrate most of our effort. Technology is the easiest (and most predictable) part of this equation.