A lot of ink has been spilled in the debate between cyber-utopians and tech-pessimists about the potential of blogs and social networks to spark revolutions or strengthen dictatorships. Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky in particular engaged in a long (and occasionally exhausting) exchange of articles for example in Prospect magazine; and while Malcolm Gladwell dismisses the importance of technology in recent revolutions, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen embrace it.
But although all these prominent writers have thought intensively about the link between technology and freedom, we are still far away from an agreement. Partly, I believe, this has to do with the fact that some of the debaters seem to be more interested in their own egos than in the subject itself. Partly, it is also because we only have very limited data and finding a causal relationship between Twitter and the start of a revolution is indeed very difficult if not impossible.
On balance, however, I tend to side with the cyber-uptopians rather than the tech-pessimists. Of course, Gladwell is right to remind us that high-risk-activism is a “strong-tie” phenomenon. Referring to the protests in Eastern Germany which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall he writes:
Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends” – the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.
Technology alone is certainly not sufficient, but blogs, Facebook, and Twitter can provide for a digital equivalent to the St. Nicholas Church, i.e. serve as a platform to meet likeminded people and to reassure oneself that one is not alone with his criticism of the regime (Thomas Friedman first made a similar argument with regard to the 2009 protests in Iran).[aartikel]1846143535:right[/aartikel] Similarly, governments in China, Iran, and elsewhere of course do use the Internet in order to spy on protestors. And despite the various technologies to disguise onself on the Internet, this may not always help. We witness a constant race between those who use the Internet as a tool for liberation and those who use it as a means of opression. Presumably, there will never be a clear winner in this race – somewhere, there will always be a Neo, fighting against the Matrix that evil dictators have programmed to keep their people distracted from the real problems.
But most importantly, if you are speaking to people from Egypt who went to Tahrir Square in January and February, they themselves firmly believe that the Internet helped them with their protests. And if the Internet really was a tool for repression, why would governments in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere shut Internet services down once it’s getting hotter in the streets?
The Internet is neither “good” nor “bad” – it’s what people make of it. And many citizens in the Arab world (and elsewhere, including the US and Europe) rely on the Internet as a place where they can voice their criticism if traditional media ignores social and political problems. It provides a direct link to donor organisations and offers some kind of protection for prominent members of the opposition. Therefore, we should promote the use of the Internet wherever we can, knowing that this can only be the first step.