Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Revolution is Networked

For a glimpse on the political side of the impact of the networked media, I highly recommend Michael Moran's op-ed piece which ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today. I'm sure you can find it in other non-pay wall places like Slate. There the original title was Short Waves to Flash Mobs.

The gist of Moran's thesis is social media - to use his words - coupled with the cell phone created a revolution which allows the individual to organize and oppose state power in ways unimaginable in the past.  He sees it as a real change in the world.

A key passage to illustrate:

As a historical milestone, the digital revolution is profound. Even World War I, which spelled doom for absolute monarchies from Germany to Russia to the Ottoman Empire, did less to empower average citizens than Nokia, Motorola, Blackberry and Apple did—not to mention Facebook, Twitter, Google and the legions of young activists determined to put all that power to use. After all, those early 20th-century monarchies simply gave way to new elites—industrialists, military men and left-wing ideologues, most of whom employed the same levers to control their populations as their royal predecessors: police forces, censorship, assassinations of troublemakers, bans on political gatherings, and when useful, beatings, torture and death. Even shutting down the internet, which the security services in Syria, Libya and Egypt all tried at various stages of those uprisings, cannot prevent determined cyber-dissidents from organizing.

For a historian who likes to point out that we rarely have anything new in human history - that we do repeat ourselves or see things as unique and novel due to presentism or fashion amnesia - Moran makes a hard to digest point. Is this really a revolution, or just a new version of an old trend?

I've argued for some time that we stand at a fundamental change moment - that at no time in human history has the barriers to mass communication been lower.  Not even since movable type - you still need a significant capital outlay. All you need is a library card to borrow the infrastructure you need, you don't even need to have the computer anymore.

Moran takes a different step by saying that cell phones are that change agent rather and social media is the follow on.

I'll contend it is the networking of all rather than just the social media that is the key.  Moran points out when totalitarian regimes have tried to shut down the Internet to end dissident organizing, new alternatives pop up using the same kind of tools.

In other words, DARPA's original concept succeeded. You really can't shut down the Internet - it survives all sorts of levels of attack.

It's not Facebook or Twitter - it is the ability to create point to point and one to many communication on the fly by various means that is the heart of the change.

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