How Much Does Tech Drive Revolutions?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

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.


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Comments [5]

Do you think social media can drive a political revolution?
Yes, but please don't tell the tyrants, lest they take countermeasures.

Jan. 22 2011 02:58 PM

I credit the great Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan for the following. Lonergan examined Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis insight and improved upon it. In a process B.L. called dialectic, opposite insights clash as their advocates propose and defend them. At least part of what each side is saying is insight, if only one percent, and the other is dross, shading from the irrelevant to the polar opposite of insight, which I like to call "satansight". The satan I am referring to is not the devil of later Judeo-Christian lore, but the satan of the book of Job, satan the nay-sayer, the opposer like a frustrated 2-year-old, the indicter of the innocent. Lonergan refers to insight, properly verified, as "position", and what I call satansight as "counter-position." B.L.'s philosophy is in harmony with evolution in the physical and the intelligent world, and so he boldly says that counter-positions are seeded with the means of their own destruction. The human mind is such that "counter-positions beg for their own reversal." As soon as enought disinterested people get wind of a counter-position, it is doomed. They are so built as human minds that they outright reject the counter-position. BUT, the trick here is that there needs to be a sufficiently large corps of DISINTERESTED hearers. Now, if in Tunisia such a corps was gathered on the social media, such as Facebook, the tyranny of the old dictatorship, the old satansight, was doomed in nearly an instant! As you can tell, I am an optimist, and I find Lonergan's analysis compelling.

Jan. 19 2011 11:52 AM
brian from Brooklyn

Question for Clay.

Could the social media ecosystem be brought down (or a least it's effectiveness blunted) by the algorithmic content generators the likes of which are "destroying" google. Simply could the social airwaives be flooded by so much noise that it is impossible to hear the real conversation

Jan. 19 2011 11:24 AM
Tonky from windsor terrace

Malcolm Gladwell's article "Small Change: Why the Revolution Won't be Tweeted" is an critique of how stories about social media having fueled popular uprisings may be exaggerated.

After all humans have been rising up for thousands of years without help from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.

Jan. 19 2011 11:21 AM

@Clay – in terms of "seeing what others are thinking" politically. How do you see the future of avoiding intellectual think-alike bubbles online.

Jan. 19 2011 11:21 AM

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