A few years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published a bestselling book with the title "The World is Flat." In it he used the concept of "flatness" to describe "how more people can plug, play, compete, connect and collaborate with more equal power than ever before — which is what is happening in the world".

Well, up to a point. Friedman's book is a paradigmatic exposition of the dominant narrative about technology — what one might call the Californian ideology — which sees computing technology as an essentially benign force that, over time, will iron out many of the economic, cultural and ideological divides that so disfigure our contemporary world. The basic message is that the Internet creates a level playing field. And the freedoms that the network brings — freedom to communicate, access knowledge, publish and consume — will in time undermine the capacity of tyrants to keep their subjects in thrall. In this at least, the Californian ideology mirrors its Marxist counterpart, in that both believe that the state will eventually wither away.

Between now and that particular nirvana, however, a few niggling difficulties remain. One is that the state shows no sign of withering any time soon. A useful case study is provided by Twitter. Although the service has been a thorn in the side of nearly every western government in recent years, all the signs are that, when push comes to shove, it's rarely beyond the long arm of the law. Just ask all those naive folks who tweeted about Lord McAlpine, who was incorrectly linked to child sex abuse and subsequently threatened legal action against Twitter users who made defamatory remarks online.