Posts Tagged ‘Twitter’

Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.

January 29, 2011

[A shorter version of this post appears at TheAtlantic.com.]

With the backdrop of political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, Roger Cohen mocks Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, as an ill-timed book in the same category as Dow 36,000, which was published just before the dot-com crash. (The Jester thanks Anno Saxenian for forwarding the article.) Cohen epitomizes technology utopians when he writes, “The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation.”

Predictably, the Jester sides with Morozov, however, whose point is subtler. (The Jester confesses he hasn’t yet read Morozov’s book, but he has thoroughly studied the back and inside covers.) Morozov’s goal is to highlight the negative uses of the Internet, often by powerful governments to achieve their own nefarious ends. Morozov’s real intent is to deny the simplistic, one-sided view that dissemination of communication technologies necessarily supports democracy.

Morozov doesn’t provide an overarching theory for when technology supports democracy and when it doesn’t, but by now, the Jester’s readers can shout in chorus: “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity.” This, of course, extends to human-run institutions like democracy.

Consider this: If the Internet by itself were the key to causing democracy, then you’d expect a country like China, with its 420 million Internet users to be a fecund breeding ground for democracy-minded activists, eager to cast off their totalitarian government. But, although there are dissident voices in China, and they do often make use of the Internet, the Chinese populace on the whole doesn’t appear prone to overthrowing its government any time soon. Nor do the citizens of Singapore, where Internet penetration is nearly 100%.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that plenty of revolutions have taken place without electronic ICTs, and that not all tweeted attempts at revolution succeed. Remember the American revolution? People wrote paper pamphlets and succeeded. And, how about Iran? People Facebooked and YouTubed, but bits are no match for atoms.

These counterexamples show that the claims of communication technologies as the primary cause, or even the catalyst, of large-scale positive social change are misleading. The Jester believes they lead to poor policy in foreign affairs and international development. They commit the classic error of confusing correlation with cause. It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.

What, then, is the cause? If the Jester may engage in a bit of armchair political science, three points emerging from Egypt and Tunisia offer clues. First, the protesters express years, if not decades, of frustrations with their government. People need to be deeply unhappy before they march. The Internet only spreads news. It doesn’t spread unemployment.

Second, the protests are led mostly by educated, middle-class people. It takes an educated population that isn’t living hand-to-mouth, to risk an upending of the status quo. In contrast, there are many oppressed but starving populations that don’t put up a fight. You can’t eat freedom; better a dictator who feeds you than a democracy who doesn’t. (Kevin Bales, an expert on modern slavery, tells a story of a couple who buy themselves out of slavery, and then promptly sign back up with their old master, because without him, they have neither food nor secuirty.)

Third, the governments’ physical might, or their will to use it, appears to be weak. In Egypt’s case, the Jester wagers that how it all turns out will depend on the willingness of the army to be ruthless. So far, it seems the army itself is reluctant to hurt citizens. Must have been because of Facebook!

(Broken record warning.) Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent, which evolves through non-technological social forces. Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power. An avalanche’s underlying cause is a flake-by-flake accumulation of snow; similarly, the tipping point of revolution is the culmination of a person-by-person accumulation of frustration and middle-class security.

The Jester accepts that it’s hard to predict how technological magnification comes out. Different capacities are magnified, and so government and citizen intent will be amplified differently. But, on the whole, the tipping point is determined not so much by technology, but by other forces often buried deep in human psyches. Witness how little FoxNews and MSNBC converts opposing opinions in the United States. If “connecting people” or “making people aware of the plight of others” through technology were the primary cause of peace and equality, then America ought to converge to consensus with all the communication happening over TV, radio, Internet, and mobile phone. But, if anything, the technology is creating greater polarization. Democrats are Democrats, not primarily because they are exposed to left-leaning ideas online. Republicans are Republicans, not primarily because they hear right-leaning ideas on FoxNews. This is again, confusing correlation with cause.

Technology can communicate frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation. Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion (PCs for schools notwithstanding). Whatever extent technology helps revolutionaries communicate, it is a minor contribution compared to the circumstances that made them revolutionaries.

What does this mean for policy? Technology policy should be more selectively applied. It helps most when the social balance is already in favor of a desired outcome. Otherwise, there are other conditions we might push for first – good nutrition, viable healthcare, and universal education – most of which are less controversial, even for dictators. And, in any case, technology-for-all policies require extreme care, as Hilary Clinton found with WikiLeaks and “Internet freedom”: Technology’s blade is always double-edged.

All Atwitter about Twitter

September 30, 2010

In an article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell bites into “the outsized enthusiasm for social media.” This is a worthwhile cause, to be sure. The article drips with contempt for anyone and everyone who seems overly eager to declare the miracles of technology. The claims of Twitter’s role in Moldova and Iran are put in their place. He quotes journalist Golnaz Esfandiari, “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” Go, Malcolm, go!  

But, this is actually old news. What’s new is Gladwell’s take. He denies two business-book authors’ claim that “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation.” It’s not motivation, but merely participation that is increased via social networks, according to Gladwell. Citing Facebook causes that have millions of friends but very low average donations, he writes, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

This is true, and right in line with the Jester’s motto: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. Yes, you can get more friends on Facebook making donations, than if you had to stuff envelopes and lick stamps, but what use is it, if their underlying desire and ability to donate is limited (as it inevitably is)?

The story he ends on is the story made famous by Clay Shirky, about a New York woman, Ivanna, who loses her fancy mobile phone in a taxi and has it stolen by a teenager, Sasha, who refuses to return it. Thanks to some Internet activism by Ivanna’s friend Evan, millions of people followed the story, some agitated, and the police were forced publicly to acknowledge that the phone was stolen and not just lost. They then nabbed Sasha and Ivanna got her phone back. Gladwell says whoop-dee-doo, and ends with sarcastic flourish the Jester wished he had: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” 

If Gladwell pushed just a little further, though, he’d have had even more ammunition to critique his targets. The real issue with these stories is not that they are minor accomplishments — Shirky’s other examples, which Malcolm leaves out, are actually quite powerful. The real problem is that as everyone else starts using these tools for the same purposes, we will again settle into an equilibrium where everyone competes for everyone else’s attention, and the winners of the new game will, with minor shuffling, be the same winners of the old game. How soon do you think it will be, before people tire of agitating on the behalf of rich people’s lost gadgets? And, how quickly we’ll all get exhausted when pinged for the next thousand causes we could be giving to.

Technology amplifies human intent and capacity, but the competition for some things — donor dollars, attention, political power — is more of a zero-sum game than a game pie that can be grown indefinitely, by technology or otherwise. For maybe a few more months, or maybe a few more years, we’ll keep hearing about how Twitter and Facebook is a wondrous, global lost-and-found. But, when the dust settles, we’ll quickly start treating common Facebook requests like so much spam.

The amplification that social media is accomplishing is the speed at which we get excited about, and then grow weary of, fads.

(Incidentally, for further commentary on Gladwell’s article, see the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” column. The Jester agrees most with fellow technology realist Evgeny Morozov’s note.)