How Much Does Tech Drive Revolutions?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Clay Shirky, internet guru, faculty at the Interactive Telecommunications program at NYU and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, discusses the role of the internet in political building political power.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the ousting of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has again raised questions about the role of social media in political movements. While the streaming Twitter stream of the events made for a captivating play-by-play, Clay Shirky thinks change caused by social media is measured in years and decades rather than weeks and months. He said this applies to the situation in Tunisia as well, where the recent outcry is the end of a long process that's been going on for a while.

What happens before that is that a populous kind of knows its own mind. It's not just that each person realizes the regime is corrupt or there are not enough jobs, but each person realizes that everybody else knows it too. And that synchronizing effect in advance of an uprising or a political change is really the long term political contribution of social media which is to help people converse with one another...and then when they decide to take action, be able to do so in a synchronized way.

The synchronization is often the flashy moment that gets picked up by media, but not the process that procedes it.

The problem with U.S. policy in this age of information, Shirky said, is that there are two clashing goals, and they are made clear in the recently released WikiLeaks cables. One is that we want allies, and the second is we want other countries in the world to be democracies. (The recently ousted Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, was a U.S. ally in the region.) Shirky explained:

The difficulty in promoting internet freedom, which was the title of Secretary Clinton's talk as of a year ago as a sort of a new pillar of State Department policy, is that it runs aground on our temptation to essentially treat each other nation of the world with different local policy.

We need to improve access to social media but without short term political goals, Shirky said, and we need to look at the idea of "internet freedom" in a different way because conversation (even if it's online) is still politically more important than the information itself. 

We've tended to overestimate the political value of access to information, the idea that someone, if given free access to Wikipedia and The New York Times will then agitate for democracy, and we've underestimated the value of conversation. What really leads citizens to participate in the kind of public sphere that ends up demanding political change is the ability to coordinate with one another.

According to Shirky, we should reorder our state priorities to support this "conversation." When we advocate internet freedom in ways that are "regime specific," he said we look like hypocrites, which is what has happened in Tunisia.