ONE of the reasons for Barack Obama’s electoral success was his campaign’s brilliantly effective deployment of young e-communicators. Their tireless use of blogs and social-networking sites helped to generate excitement,collect money,get the vote out and raise political consciousness in America as a whole.
All that was a landmark in the political history of the internet. But the transforming-and at best,liberating-effects of modern communications have been even more dramatic in societies that are poorer and harsher than America: countries where authoritarian regimes and rigid mores had until recently given youngsters little room for manoeuvre.
The question in many internet-watchers’ minds is this: as young surfers are exposed to facts,sights,sounds and a range of interlocutors that are far beyond their parents’ ken,how will they use that access? Will they try to change the world,or simply settle for enjoying themselves?
There is so much evidence of the latter choice that pundits have invented a new word-cyber-hedonism-to describe it. To the dismay of idealists,young people in many countries seem to be giving up the political struggles of previous generations and opting instead for a sort of digital nirvana,revelling in a vast supply of movies,music,instant communication and of course,sexual opportunity. One appealing thing about cyber-hedonism is that,compared with politics,it’s less likely to attract the authorities’ attention.
Electronic pastimes for the young range from the innocent to the deadly dangerous. In Nigeria,a best-selling book provides youngsters with tips on “touching the heart through unforgettable text messages”. Young Indians have a penchant for browsing marriage sites in search of a good match. Newly weds who would like to celebrate by visiting a famous site,such as the Taj
Mahal,can make virtual tours instead. In richer Asian countries-like South Korea or Singapore-there is a passion among the young for online gambling that often
becomes addictive. Cyber-hedonism does not,of course,replace real-life flirtation and sex; it merely seems to remove some of the obstacles. Chile has spawned a youth culture known as the Pokémon movement,in which teenagers with odd hairstyles gather to engage in kissing or more. All this-as well as the activity of conservative youth groups that disapprove-is co-ordinated electronically.
In China,two-thirds of the respondents to one opinion poll agreed with the proposition that “It’s possible to have real relationships purely online,” compared with one-fifth of Americans who felt the same way. But clearly,not all Chinese are content with keeping things virtual: a doctor who runs a pregnancy helpline in Shanghai has said that half the calls she receives come from girls who met boys through the net.
In many countries,the truth is that access to pornography is the biggest factor that draws young men online. First-time visitors to internet cafés in the Middle East or South-East Asia are often surprised to see a male-only clientele,awkwardly protecting their screens from public view. The owners of such cafés know what is happening,but they also realise that cracking down in the name of morality could drive them out of business. In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia,meanwhile,most of the material passed between teenagers’ mobile phones is pornographic.
Political leaders and religious establishments are placed in a dilemma by the rise of cyber-hedonism: do they follow their youngsters onto the net,or try vainly to lure them away from the computer?
In Asia,some politicians have tried to profit from online hedonism by presenting themselves as devotees. In last year’s elections in Taiwan,candidates vied to appear internet- and youth-friendly. One hired a spokesman from a heavy-metal band and posted a series of ads on YouTube,the video-sharing site; he was unfazed by explicit exchanges about a popular erotic film,”Lust,Caution”.
In authoritarian countries with rising living standards-such as Russia and China,until recently-official tolerance of cyber-hedonism has been a sort of Faustian pact offered by the authorities: we will let you enjoy yourselves,in new and unconventional ways,if you keep off politics. But now that economies have turned sour,will the young go on keeping their side of that bargain?
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009