Khashoggi's last column was skeptical of tech utopianism

If you haven't already, I'd highly recommend taking a moment to read and share Jamal Khashoggi's last column, published in the Washington Post last week. If nothing else, you'll be giving a small but richly deserved "fuck you" to the Saudi royal family and their goons who killed Khashoggi.

I'll confess, I didn't get to the column myself until yesterday. I'd braced myself for a bittersweet read in advance, but the piece still moved me much more than I expected. Every word shouts that Khashoggi was truly a hero to the last, courageous in a way that those of us fortunate to be born in the U.S. can't even begin fathom.

For purposes of this blog, I'd also note that Khashoggi's last column was gently but clearly skeptical about the inherent power of technology to democratize repressive societies like Saudi Arabia. He doesn't criticize any social networks or tech companies by name, but the message comes across loud and clear.

He laments how the promise of the Arab Spring in 2011 ultimately didn't pan out, including the freedom from censorship many observers thought was on the way. If you were paying attention at all at the time, the widely hailed workarounds to enable all this new free expression were supposedly going to be tech platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This narrative was so common at the time, it even led to a Wikipedia page devoted solely to the topic.

The reality since the Arab Spring has been a lot more complicated, including an unfortunate international silence about most new instances of repression in the region. That reticence has subtly exacted its own toll over the years, Khashoggi says:

As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.

Khashoggi's words are a handy reminder that there's nothing intrinsically beneficial or harmful about tech, nothing inherently moral or immoral about it, nothing good or bad. Its mere presence may raise certain new possibilities, yes. But merely having tech doesn't actually solve anything unless humans put in real work to use it properly. And we very often fail at that task, unfortunately.

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