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Revolution and the Net

This article appears in the issue March 2011 (100 Companies) [Vol 20, Issue 3]


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As I write this, Tunisia has gone through a revolution, Egypt is in turmoil, and other states in the region are looking nervously over their shoulders. Here in the United States, we’re debating whether it’s right to call these “twitter revolutions.”

It’s not. Technology doesn’t revolt. People who feel thwarted or damaged by their government revolt. They use the means they have. In this case, the Internet was one of the means. To call it a twitter revolution is to undervalue the substantial issues that drive people into the streets.

Nevertheless, our temptation to talk about “twitter revolutions”—a phrase more talked about than actually used—shows us at least three things.

First, we are still feeling outpaced by our technology. If it didn’t still feel new and novel, it wouldn’t be worth calling out when we talk about events. Of course, the “we” here is ambiguous; it is the old media and the old generation who are most impressed by the novelty of Twitter.

Connecting with people

Second, these revolts show that those who have thought of the Internet primarily as an information medium have a firm grasp on the head of the hammer, which is not the best place to hold it. They’re thinking that oppressed people use the Net to discover information about how the rest of the world lives, and then to inform the rest of the world about what’s going on in their own nation. Indeed, that is one way the Net is used. But, the Internet seems to be more important as a person-to-person communication vehicle than as a person-to-information conduit. Access to the Net enables protesters to organize themselves.

The Net has looked like an information medium because it came out of the Information Age, and because the traditional media at least initially understood it within their own terms: Traditional media in the broadcast era gave us access to information, so that’s what the Internet must be doing as well. But if it looked like a publishing medium to the old regime, to its users it’s always looked like a way of connecting with other people.

Our social nature

Third, our view of these uprisings gives us a window into an unresolved question that has been swirling around us for more than a decade when it comes to the Internet, and for about 50 years when applied to other media: How much effect do media have on their culture? Put in terms of the recent events, did the Internet serve merely as a conduit for the coordination of events, or did the use of the Net somehow shape the protesters’ beliefs about their relationship to their government? Did the Net help change the culture as well as provide a means of communication?

The Internet optimists—like me—early on thought that the open, easy connectivity the Net provided would affirm some beliefs about the basic social nature of humans. The stilted voices of the broadcast world would start to sound thin. We’d get better at accepting an honest imperfection than a glossed-up image of perfection. We would discover that we like being with one another far more than we like listening to our “betters.” We would learn that we can collaborate in bottom-up and emergent ways to accomplish goals that top-down structures couldn’t even begin to dream about. All that, some of us hoped, would be conveyed merely by the experience of the Internet.

Do the protests and rebellions bear that out? Maybe, maybe not. It’s very hard to tell exactly how much effect the Net has had on beliefs and values, if any. Plus, the effects could vary widely by locale and situation. Is the Net having that sort of effect in the United States? Again, very hard to tell. It is perhaps a question we’ll only be able to answer in 50 years, and even then we’ll probably just be guessing.

Unpredictability

The problem is that history is so emergent. It cannot be predicted except perhaps in the broadest of strokes, and even then it is debatable. During the worst days of Apartheid, could you have predicted that Nelson Mandela would come out of decades of imprisonment with an unbroken heart? Could you have predicted that a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi would set himself on fire in Tunisia, and could you then have predicted that his compatriots would arise because of it? Knowing that his suicide sparked an uprising, could you have predicted the outcome? Emergent events are causally determined, but trying to trace those causes is a mug’s game; that’s what makes them emergent. And, even if you could follow the track, you’d have little reason to believe the next emergent situation will act in the same way.

And yet we find ourselves inevitably having to act. For example, if you’re in the State Department, you have to figure out what you’re going to do about and with the Internet. Will you pressure countries to provide more open access? Will you provide dissidents with tools to circumvent censorship? Policy requires a decisiveness that the evidence cannot fully support. So, we research, we think, we talk, and we make our best guess.

My best guess: The Net is—in the right circumstances and balanced against the risks—an enabler of freedom that in almost all cases we ought to vigorously promote.


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