Connected Citizens Take on Government
There’s an old saying that new technology adoption moves faster than the laws that govern its use. Some pundits discuss the time lag in terms of decades, not years. Governments, as the arbiters of lawmaking that conforms with either the representative will of the people or the imposed will of the rulers upon the ruled, are generally reactive to the changes in social behavior that new technologies foster. As a result, they typically tend to favor preservation of the status quo.
There is a significant lag between the introduction of transformative technologies and the introduction of laws that bound their use in a society. The border between “legal” and “illegal” behavior is blurred because technology disrupts the “status quo” that laws establish for the general good of society until a new status quo can be developed. Behavioral change based on massively deployed technologies by definition implies the deployment of large numbers of connected devices that incorporate and support these technologies. You can say the citizenry is “armed” in a way that threatens the status quo. Some combinations of technologies can punch above their individual weights because each requires the other to achieve maximum potency.
As an example of the blurring of the lines of legal behavior that technology can create, in this case mobile telephony enabling social networking, we can consider the “Arab Spring.” In the West, we cheered for the thousands of street protestors in countries swept up in this movement; we viewed them as courageous citizens rising to demand their universal human rights in repressive regimes. Yet, in their countries, such as Egypt—where the Mubarak regime was a longstanding, stable “ally” of the United States—these citizens were viewed by their governments as violating established laws.
For readers of this magazine, I would think part of the fascination with the connected world would be how people use those devices in ways not specifically intended by the companies that design them and the applications they support. Global networks of carriers and infrastructure developers typically deploy to support intentional use cases such as mobile shopping, news and entertainment delivery, and keeping in touch with friends and family. Supporting revolution is not generally one of the use cases defined in corporate strategic planning.
Most designers of “smart” connected devices, the applications they run, or the infrastructure in which they function do not intend to negatively “disrupt” the general good of society. They do intend to make something “cool” that will make them money. Our society considers these to be positive intentions.
But as William Gibson famously said: “The Street will find its own use for things.”
Let’s revisit those protesting citizens in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who I think qualify collectively as Gibson’s “Street.” My focus was on the close-up shots, when western reporters stood in the midst of the people reporting their story. Did you notice how many of the protesters surrounding the reporter had mobile phones in their hands? Did you see them texting as the reported talked, or taking photos of the reporter and his crew? Did you follow the tweet volumes from these venues when Western reporters were operative?
In the reportage coming from Syria, do you catch the disclaimers (“not independently verified”) by the news services when they use video footage captured by mobile phones and made available as evidence of the regimes atrocities? Why use a disclaimer? Anticipation of a lawsuit? From whom, and under what legal authority?
I contend the evolving “success” of the “Arab Spring,” representative of other grassroots movements around the world, is dependent upon the availability of connected devices to disintermediate the regulated channels of information typical of governments we define as repressive. Regulated infrastructure can be bypassed for inflow and outflow of information. This ability has enabled millions of people to network and conduct disruptive operations other than outright war (as in the case of Egypt). If the operation results in regime change, then, effectively, repressive laws are mitigated. No need to worry about “catch up.” (For a very comprehensive review of the contribution of social network activity to the success of Arab Spring, read Social Capital Blog’s http://bit.ly/NclYuX)
It is interesting how Western governments, including ours, seem to be caught by surprise when popular movements like those within the Arab Spring arise and upset the geopolitical status quo. It is not like we were not warned this would happen.
The U.S. DoD (Dept. of Defense) has supported initiatives that look ahead to the evolution of warfare based on changing factors, including social issues. One of the documents funded by DoD was publicly released in 1996, titled “The Advent of Netwar.”
Let’s provide some context with which to assess the impact of this document. In 1996, pagers ruled, cellphones were like bricks, and the Motorola StarTac was the sexiest one on the market. Nintendo 64 and the PalmPilot were introduced, and Intel’s Pentium II processor was still a year away. Mobile phone penetration in global markets was still a dream.
This was the state of technology when two of RAND Corp.’s National Defense Research Institute researchers, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, introduced the concept of “netwar.” RAND is a “think tank” originally formed by Douglas Aircraft Co., to support the U.S. military’s needs for strategic planning.
The authors introduced social struggles as a category of emerging netwar, especially where human rights issues were the basis for conflict between a government and its citizens.
According to Arquilla and Ronfeldt, “The term ‘netwar’ denotes an emerging mode of conflict … at societal levels, involving measures short of war, in which protagonists use—indeed depend on using—network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy, and communication.”
“ … The netwar spectrum may increasingly include a new generation of revolutionaries and activists who espouse postindustrial, information-age ideologies that are just now taking shape. In some cases, identities and loyalties may shift from the nation-state to the transnational level of ‘global civil society.’”
Think about our positive reaction to the protesters in Cairo mentioned above.
“Social netwar … is conducted largely through vigilant swarming … A global network structure is being built up. It consists of issue-oriented groups and infrastructure-building organizations that can mount a campaign around any issue. This structure has no central leadership or ideology, although some activists and political tendencies may be stronger than others. Instead, it is characterized by what we call ‘collective diversity’ and ‘coordinated anarchy.’ Building a communications infrastructure that enables rapid mobilization is very important to this structure.”
Fast forward to 2011. In the Middle East and Africa, mobile communication networks are the predominant communications networks, emerging from literally nothing (no pervasive landline phone infrastructure to retard mobile adoption, like in the U.S.).
Globalization has brought a level of technology awareness to previously ignored markets, enabling people with mobile phones to view CNN and other nonregulated news sources, to network through Facebook, and communicate through tweets.
People in Cairo, mired in the same stifling status quo throughout the region that inspires the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia, witness the explosively viral reaction of the people of Tunisia, resulting within weeks in the fall of the government. They did not get this information from state-control