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Age of information
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The Pursuit of Happiness. People who take part in their communities and governments are happier than those who don’t

"Today, economics, with its misapprehension that human beings are cost/benefit calculating machines, has come to dominate our politics and our lives. We’re left with an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus. (…)

Economists and leaders have begun to search for alternative ways to value the lives of individuals and evaluate the success of nations. Since many of the questions they’re raising are philosophical, voices from the past may be helpful.

The Greeks, for instance, were very interested in well being. Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply “Eat, drink, and be merry,” or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn’t depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions. President Kennedy alluded to Aristotle when he defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along the lines of excellence.”

For the Greeks, excellence could be manifest only in a city or a community. Since human beings were political animals, the best way to exercise virtue and justice was within the institutions of a great city (the polis). Only beasts and gods could live alone. A solitary person was not fully human. In fact, the Greek word “idiot” means a private person, someone who is not engaged in public life. It was only in a fair and just society that can men and women could be fully human—and happy.

This is what the American Revolution was all about. Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” for the word “property,” which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that “property” was too narrow a notion.

But what exactly did “happiness” mean to the colonists? It was a topic of lively discussion in pubs, public squares, broadsheets, and books. Was happiness individual prosperity, or something else?

Conservatives argue that the American Revolution exalted the individual. Certainly, the colonists didn’t want the British Crown telling them what to do. But the Revolution wasn’t just about getting the government out of people’s lives so the Founders could pursue their private desires.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had nice houses. They could have enjoyed contented private lives. But it was not just about their property. They believed that you attained happiness, not merely through the goods you accumulated, or in your private life, but through the good that you did in public. People were happy when they controlled their destiny, when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events, when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them.

The American revolutionaries wanted to have their voice heard and to participate in government. After all, their slogan was not “No taxation”—which is such a popular rallying cry today—but “No taxation without representation.” Representation was critical to happiness. The Founders’ long recitation of grievances set out the numerous ways in which they couldn’t control their destiny. They were subject to England, while they wished to be citizens of America. As citizens, they were able to take control of their government and create a just state where the rule of law was respected, domestic tranquility assured, and defense maintained.

As political animals, human beings need a city, a nation, in which to flourish. People can develop their talents only in society. The good society nurtures many talents, and the political system makes that possible by what it rewards and encourages. (…)

This brings me to jobs. After the crash of 2009, banks have been saved, corporations are prospering, and people are still unemployed. My father would have seen something wrong with this picture. He believed having a good job was the key to happiness. “The root problem,” he said, “is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do, which means nothing to do with the rest of us. To be without work, to be without use to one’s fellow citizens, is to be in truth the invisible man of whom Ralph Ellison wrote.” (…) “I helped to build this city. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I count.”

It’s not only through our jobs but through participating in public life that we help build the city. In fact, research shows that people who take part in political activities such as voting, advocating for laws, and helping to make government work for themselves and their community are happier than those who don’t. (…)”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served as Maryland’s first woman lieutenant governor. She now works in finance in Washington, a member of the Kennedy family, The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn’t, The Atlantic, June 20, 2011 (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

See also:

☞ Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, What Makes Life Worthwhile? GDP Won’t Tell You, The Atlantic, June 13, 2011
Get Politically Engaged, Get Happy?, Miller-McCune, Feb 14, 2011


Tendency Toward Egalitarianism May Have Helped Humans Survive

"Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match. As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together. The advent of agriculture and settled life may have thrown a few feudal monkeys and monarchs into the mix, but evolutionary theorists say our basic egalitarian leanings remain.

Studies have found that the thirst for fairness runs deep. As Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and his colleagues reported in the journal Nature, by the age of 6 or 7, children are zealously devoted to the equitable partitioning of goods, and they will choose to punish those who try to grab more than their arithmetically proper share of Smarties and jelly beans even when that means the punishers must sacrifice their own portion of treats.

In follow-up research with older children and adolescents that has yet to be published, Dr. Fehr and his colleagues have found a more nuanced understanding of fairness, an acknowledgment that some degree of inequality can make sense: The kid who studies every night deserves a better grade than the slacker. Nevertheless, said Dr. Fehr, there are limits to teenage tolerance. “ ‘One for me, two for you’ may not be too bad,” Dr. Fehr said. “But ‘one for me, five for you’ would not be accepted.”

A sense of fairness is both cerebral and visceral, cortical and limbic. In the journal PLoS Biology, Katarina Gospic of the Karolinska Institute’s Osher Center in Stockholm and her colleagues analyzed brain scans of 35 subjects as they played the famed Ultimatum game, in which participants bargain over how to divide up a fixed sum of money. Immediately upon hearing an opponent propose a split of 80 percent me, 20 percent you, scanned subjects showed a burst of activity in the amygdala, the ancient seat of outrage and aggression, followed by the arousal of higher cortical domains associated with introspection, conflict resolution and upholding rules; and 40 percent of the time they angrily rejected the deal as unfair.

That first swift limbic kick proved key. When given a mild anti-anxiety drug that suppressed the amygdala response, subjects still said they viewed an 80-20 split as unjust, but their willingness to reject it outright dropped in half. “This indicates that the act of treating people fairly and implementing justice in society has evolutionary roots,“ Dr. Gospic said. “It increases our survival.”

David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, sees the onset of humanity’s cooperative, fair-and-square spirit as one of the major transitions in the history of life on earth, moments when individual organisms or selection units band together and stake their future fitness on each other. A larger bacterial cell engulfs a smaller bacterial cell to form the first complex eukaryotic cell. Single cells merge into multicellular organisms of specialized parts. Ants and bees become hive-minded superorganisms and push all other insects aside.

“A major transition occurs when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups, so that it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group,” Dr. Wilson said. “It’s a rare event, and it’s hard to get started, but when it does you can quickly dominate the earth.” Human evolution, he said, “clearly falls into this paradigm.”

Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside. “In a typical primate group, the toughest individuals can have their way and dominate everybody else in the group,” said Dr. Wilson. “Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust.”

Our ancestors had to learn to trust their neighbors, and the seeds of our mutuality can be seen in our simplest gestures, like the willingness to point out a hidden object to another, as even toddlers will do. Early humans also needed ways to control would-be bullies, and our exceptional pitching skills — which researchers speculate originally arose to help us ward off predators — probably helped. “We can throw much better than any other primate,” Dr. Wilson said, “and once we could throw things at a distance, all of a sudden the alpha male is vulnerable to being dispatched with stones. Stoning might have been one of our first adaptations.”

Low hierarchy does not mean no hierarchy. Through ethnographic and cross-cultural studies, researchers have concluded that the basic template for human social groups is moderately but not unerringly egalitarian. They have found gradients of wealth and power among even the most nomadic groups, but such gradients tend to be mild. In a recent analysis of five hunter-gatherer populations, Eric Aiden Smith of the University of Washington and his colleagues found the average degree of income equality to be roughly half that seen in the United States, and close to the wealth distribution of Denmark.

Interestingly, another recent study found that when Americans were given the chance to construct their version of the optimal wealth gradient for America, both Republicans and Democrats came up with a chart that looked like Sweden’s. There’s no need to insult the meat in the land of lutefisk.”

— Natalie Angier, science journalist, Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive, The New York Times, July 4, 2011 (Illustration source)


The Filter Bubble: Eli Pariser on What the Internet Is Hiding From You 


"A “filter bubble”— “a unique universe of information for each of us”, meaning that we are less likely to encounter information online that challenges our existing views or sparks serendipitous connections. “A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn,” Mr Pariser declares. He calls this “invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas”.The dangers of the internet: Invisible sieve, The Economist, Jun 30th 2011

"We’re used to thinking of the Internet like an enormous library, with services like Google providing a universal map. But that’s no longer really the case. Sites from Google and Facebook to Yahoo News and the New York Times are now increasingly personalized – based on your web history, they filter information to show you the stuff they think you want to see. That can be very different from what everyone else sees – or from what we need to see.

Your filter bubble is this unique, personal universe of information created just for you by this array of personalizing filters. It’s invisible and it’s becoming more and more difficult to escape. (…)

Q: What is the Internet hiding from me?

EP: As Google engineer Jonathan McPhie explained to me, it’s different for every person – and in fact, even Google doesn’t totally know how it plays out on an individual level. (…)

In one form or another, nearly every major website on the Internet is flirting with personalization. But the one that surprises people most is Google. If you and I Google the same thing at the same time, we may get very different results. Google tracks hundreds of “signals” about each of us – what kind of computer we’re on, what we’ve searched for in the past, even how long it takes us to decide what to click on – and uses it to customize our results. When the result is that our favorite pizza parlor shows up first when we Google pizza, it’s useful. But when the result is that we only see the information that is aligned with our religious or social or political beliefs, it’s difficult to maintain perspective. (…)

Research psychologists have known for a while that the media you consume shapes your identity. So when the media you consume is also shaped by your identity, you can slip into a weird feedback loop. A lot of people see a simple version of this on Facebook: You idly click on an old classmate, Facebook reads that as a friendship, and pretty soon you’re seeing every one of John or Sue’s posts.

Gone awry, personalization can create compulsive media – media targeted to appeal to your personal psychological weak spots. You can find yourself eating the equivalent of information junk food instead of having a more balanced information diet. (…)

Google’s Eric Schmidt recently said “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them,” rather than “Google is making it very hard…” Mark Zuckerberg perfectly summed up the tension in personalization when he said “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” But he refuses to engage with what that means at a societal level – especially for the people in Africa.”

Eli Pariser, the former Executive Director of, political activist, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, The Penguin Press, 2011. 

A Filter Bubbles: ‘a static ever-narrowing version of yourself’

"We are beginning to live in what Eli Pariser calls “filter bubble,” personalized micro-universes of information that overemphasize what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. Not only are we unaware of the information that is filtered out, but we are unaware that we are unaware. Our personal economies of information seem complete despite their deficiencies. Personal decisions contribute to this pattern, and ever more sophisticated technologies add to it. Google’s understanding of our tastes and interests is still a crude one, but it shapes the information that we find via Google searches. And because the information we are exposed to perpetually reshapes our interests, we can become trapped in feedback loops: Google’s perception of what we want to read shapes the information we receive, which in turn affects our interests and browsing behavior, providing Google with new information. The result, Pariser suggests, may be “a static ever-narrowing version of yourself.”

This self-reinforcement may have unhappy consequences for politics. Pariser, who is inspired by the philosophy of John Dewey, argues that ideological opponents need to agree on facts and understand each other’s point of view if democracy is to work well. Exposure to the other side allows for the creation of a healthy “public” that can organize around important public issues. Traditional media, in which editors choose stories they believe to be of public interest, have done this job better than do trivia-obsessed new media. Furthermore, intellectual cocooning may stifle creativity, which is spurred by the collision of different ways of thinking about the world. If we are not regularly confronted with surprising facts and points of view, we are less likely to come up with innovative solutions. (…)

When Pariser argues that the dissemination of information has political consequences, he is right. He is also persuasive in arguing that filter-bubble problems cannot be solved easily through individual action. When Pariser himself sought to broaden his ideological horizons through “friending” conservatives on Facebook, he found that Facebook systematically failed to include their updates in his main feed. Since he clicked on these links less often, Facebook inferred that he wasn’t interested in them and calibrated his information diet accordingly. As long as dominant businesses have incentives to give us what they think we want, individuals will have difficulty in breaking through the bubble on their own. The businesses aren’t wrong: Most people don’t enjoy having their basic preconceptions regularly challenged. They like their bubbles.”

Henry Farrell, Irish-born associate professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, Bubble Trouble, The American Prospect, Aug 30, 2011

See also:

Interview with Eli Pariser “On The Media: “The Filter Bubble”
Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”,, Mar 2011

Network. What happens to the information we feed into the network (visualization)


Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya

"Recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) “has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.”Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of “foreign imposed regime change” going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account “selection effects” (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.

Why? According to Downes, because deposing an existing regime and bringing new leaders to power “disrupts state power and foments grievances and resentments.” To make matter worse, the probability of civil war in the aftermath of foreign imposed regime change increases even more when it is accompanied by defeat in inter-state war, and when it occurs in poor and ethnically heterogeneous countries.” This isn’t reassuring either, given that Libya’s is still a poor society (because the Qaddafi family monopolizes the oil revenues) and it remains divided into potentially fractious tribes.

Here’s the bottom line:

"[Foreign imposed regime change] is likely to spur resistance and civil war in those countries where the United States and other advanced democracies are most likely to undertake such intervention [i.e., poor, weak states]; the situation is made even bleaker if war is needed to overthrow the existing regime…  [O]verthrowing other governments (and bringing new leaders to power rather than restoring previous rulers) is a policy instrument with limited utility because of its potential to ignite civil wars. These conflicts may in turn result in the imposed regime’s ouster or draw interveners into costly occupations.” 

By the way, Downes also has another paper (co-authored with Jonathan Monten of the LSE) which finds that "states that have their governments removed by a democracy gain no significant democratic benefit compared to similar states that do not experience intervention." Democratic intervention does have positive effects (on average) in relatively wealthy and homogeneous societies, but "evidence from past experience suggests that imposed regime change by democratic states is unlikely to be an effective means of spreading democracy," especially when one factors in the costs.

We should all hope that Libya proves to be an exception to this tendency, but these various scholarly studies suggest that the probability that our intervention will yield a stable democracy is low, and that our decision to intervene has increased the likelihood of civil war. Heading off that possibility is likely to require a costly and extended international commitment, which is precisely what the people who launched this operation promised they would not do. We’ll see.”

Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Among his most prominent works are Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War, Social science and the Libyan adventure, Foreign Policy, March 24, 2011.

See also:
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational


Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik and Evgeny Morozov on the role of social networking technology in social activism


Malcolm Gladwell - Why the revolution will not be tweeted:

"The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. (…) Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. (…)

As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” (…)

One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. 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. (…)

The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism. (…)

In a new book called The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker wrote: “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation”. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, 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. (…)

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say? (…)

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. (…)

Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?
The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide. (…)

It is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change. Why the revolution will not be tweeted, The New Yorker, Oct 4, 2010

Leo Mirani's comment on Gladwell's article:

"In claiming that all social networks are good for is "helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls", Gladwell ignores the true significance of social media, which lies in their ability to rapidly spread information about alternative points of view that might otherwise never reach a large audience. (…)

The answer, as supplied by a friend from Tehran in June last year, is simple: “We need to be seen and heard by the world, we need all the support we can get. If the governments [of the west] refuse to accept the new government, it’s gonna be meaningful for the movement, somehow.” (…)

If activism is defined only as taking direct action and protesting on the streets, he might be right. But if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.”

Leo Mirani, Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell, the revolution may well be tweeted, Guardian, Oct 2, 2010

Adam Gopnik answering the question if Egypt’s revolution wouldn’t have happened without social networking technology:

“The issue isn’t whether people in Egypt or wherever used Twitter or whatever to communicate. Of course they did. But they used cassettes or faxes or pamphlets or whispers in years past and would have used them now if that was the easiest tech available.

The issue—the only issue—is whether the availability of those new media actually changed the likelihood of their fomenting social revolutions, or altered the outcomes of the ones they did. And there is no evidence of any kind, that I’ve seen at least, to suggest they have. In truth, every popular social revolution/movement/regime change due to since at least the French Revolution has followed the same pattern: a government weakened by war or financial crisis or both meets popular resistance which for the first time takes in members of the elite and the masses; they find a meeting space and occupy it—could be the Square or the Tennis Court—then, in the crucial moment, the army, called on to disperse the “mob”, identifies with the cause and refuses; the government is forced to surrender. Sometimes the army—Peking 1989 does—sometimes—Moscow, 1991—it doesn’t. On that decision—complicated in motive—turns the outcome of the revolution. (Then, most often, in depressing truth the best organized and most motivated of the parties on the opposition side—Jacobins or Bolsheviks or Mullahs—no matter how unrepresentative takes over in the period of chaos that follows the revolution). This is the pattern that was in place in Tunisia and Cairo, as it was in St. Petersburg in 1917 or Paris in 1830 and 1848 and 1871. Why the army, who the regime had trained and fed and paid to do just that, didn’t disperse, i.e. massacre the “mob”is always the fascinating question. In Egypt, it seems to have been prudence; in France, widespread dissatisfaction with the economic conditions.

Historians and sociologists in fifty years time may see that more social movements were begun, or fewer—or that more that did begin succeeded. If that’s the case then for good or ill (because after all, most popular movement do not have beneficent outcomes for the people who started them) social media will have had an outcome. If the number is about the same, and the outcomes about the same, then the truth that revolutionaries used Twitter or Facebook will be of the same consequence as that they once wore Phrygian caps and now wear tee-shirts—an interesting detail about the décor of the time, but not a crucial determinant of anything. The notion that because people used Twitter therefore twitter made the revolution is so nakedly ridiculous that it is hard to believe that grown-up people are seriously proposing it.”

Adam Gopnik, Ask the Author: Ask the Author Live: Adam Gopnik on the Internet, The New Yorker, Feb 16, 2011

Digital power and its discontents — Evgeny Morozov & Clay Shirky Edge Conversation

EVGENY MOROZOV: “If the question we are asking is “How does the Internet impact the chances for democratization in a country like China?”, we have to look beyond what it does to citizens’ ability to communicate with each other or their supporters in the West. I recently found a very fascinating piece of statistics: apparently, the Chinese government spent $120 billion by 2003 on e-government and something like $70 million on the Golden Shield, the censorship project. You compare those two numbers — $120 billion on e-government and $70 million on censorship — and you can sense that the Chinese are really excited by e-government. No surprises here: it can make their government more efficient, making it seem more transparent and resistant to corruption. This would only strengthen the government’s legitimacy. Will it modernize the Chinese Communist Party? It will. Will it result in the establishment of democratic institutions that we expect in liberal democracies? It may not. If we want to know whether China is moving closer to embracing fully functioning democratic institutions and what kind of role the Internet would play in this process, there are no easy clear cut answers here. (…)

Whatever the bias, the truth is that we did have revolutions before Twitter. (…) And we did support those forces somehow, whether it was by smuggling technology, which did happen in Poland smuggling in those Xerox machines, or just by making sure that the Polish political dissidents could link up with the Catholic Church. (…)

People like Stephen Kotkin, for example — who argue that the reason why communism collapsed was because its elites badly mismanaged the situation and the governments simply imploded from within. That’s Kotkin’s “Uncivil Society” thesis: communist government just ran out of money and resources and couldn’t support themselves, so whatever was happening at the grassroots level — with or without Xerox machines — didn’t matter all that much. This, of course, overstates the case but I think Kotkin is asking some important questions. You probably see the implications of his argument to the role of the smuggled Xerox machines: they may not have been all that important, for it was the fundamental economic unsustainability of communism that precipitated its collapse. So how many tweets are now being smuggled into Iran may not really matter in the long run.

(…) In Belarus in 2006. One of the reasons why protests happened in the first place had to do with the fact that, yes, there were presidential elections, and one of the candidates in those elections was actually imprisoned shortly after the elections,. It had nothing to do with social media. You know, if people had no Internet, they would still show up in the Square in the numbers that they did, probably. So, to me, the case of Belarus is even more unambiguous than the case of Iran: social media didn’t really play any role whatsoever in generating protests in the streets. (…)

My biggest problem with these flashmobbing kids in Belarus was that they had erroneously thought that the Internet presents an entirely new way of doing politics. They thought that they would build up and operate a fully virtual movement, that they would not need to bother with the dirty and bloody business of opposing a dictator, a business that often entails harassments of all kinds, as well as bloodshed, intimidation, expulsion from universities. Let’s not kid ourselves: that’s what being in an opposition in authoritarian country entails. It’s never a pretty picture. So I do fear that some of these kids thought that the Internet offered a nice shortcut that would allow them to meaningfully challenge the dictator without having to go through any of that unpleasant stuff. They thought they could just blog the dictatorship away. I even know why some of them had such high hopes for virtual politics: it promised a viable alternative to the otherwise moribund oppositional politics of the country. In the particular case of Belarus, the country simply has a terrible, disorganized, always squabbling and extremely unappealing opposition. No wonder so many smart young people do not want to be part of it. But the Internet presents them with a false choice; the reality is that they don’t have any alternatives — they can either join and reshape this opposition from within, perhaps even using the Internet — or stay on the sidelines and get lost in free and abundant online entertainment. (…)

But you look at Iran, you look at China, those are very focal points of interest for the U.S. government, And yet the Iranian police were still cracking down on protestors, killing people despite the fact that everyone was armed with mobile phones. Could they have killed more? Probably. But I didn’t see technology as a very effective deterrent. Neda was still killed despite the fact that there were people taking those videos.

But my concerns also have to do with how the Internet is changing the nature of political opposition under authoritarianism. I don’t know if you’ve read Kierkegaard, but there are quite a few subtle undertones of Kierkegaard in my critique of Twitter-based activism. Kierkegaard happened to live during the very times that were celebrated by Habermas: cafes and newspapers were on the rise all over Europe, a new democratized public sphere was emerging. But Kiergeaard was growing increasingly concerned that there were too many opinions flowing around, that it was too easy to rally people behind an infinite number of shallow causes, that no one had strong commitment to anything. There was nothing that people could die for. Ironically, this is also one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice. (…)

The kind of ordinary apolitical people that we are talking about — those who eventually muster up the courage to go and defy authorities in the streets — they need to be led by people who are ready to take a brave stand, to sacrifice themselves, to go to prison, and become the next Havels, Sakharovs, or Solzhenitsyns. (…)

I do think that the mass protest needs a charismatic leader — i.e. a Sakharov — to truly realize its potential. My fear is that a Solzhenitsyn would not be possible in the age of Twitter. He would probably end up in prison much sooner — and for much longer period — than he actually did. I am not sure that Twitter would help him become a stronger and more charismatic public figure or to gain the courage to write the first page of his book.”

Digital power and its discontentsMorozov & Shirky, Edge Conversation 4.12.2010

Douglas Rushkoff’s comment on Morozov & Shirky, Edge Conversation:

Douglas Rushkoff (Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Life, Inc.): “The function of Twitter in Iran may not have been to launch a successful challenge to a corrupt election — but rather to help those in Iran experience at least momentary solidarity with one another and the rest of the world. As easily wiped off our iPhones by the death of Michael Jackson as it may have been, it still happened. It registered in the fledgling collective consciousness. (…)

Mozorov observes: “Well, I do think that the mass protest needs a charismatic leader — i.e. a Sakharov — to truly realize its potential. My fear is that a Solzhenitsyn would not be possible in the age of Twitter.”

This misses the point. It’s not that the Net doesn’t allow for the creation of the required charismatic leader. It’s such a leader is no longer necessary. The ground rules have changed with the landscape.

The 20th Century was about movements — movements with leaders. A networked era actually has the potential to transcend movements as a means of change. We don’t get behind a charismatic leader and follow him along his heroic journey (and eventual martyrdom). Instead, change happens from the bottom up — or the outside in. It happens spontaneously, less like the French Revolution, and more like a chaotic system changing state.

So the decline of the recognizable features of revolution may indicate the end of activism as we know it — but it may also indicate the end of repression as we know it.” The Reality Club, Edge

See also: Evgeny Morozov: The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens?

Does the internet actually inhibit, not encourage democracy? In this new RSA Animate, Evgeny Morozov presents an alternative take on ‘cyber-utopianism’ - the seductive idea that the internet plays a largely empancipatory role in global politics. Exposing some idealistic myths about freedom and technology (during Iran’s ‘twitter revolution’ fewer than 20,000 Twitter users actually took part), Evgeny argues for some realism about the actual uses and abuses of the internet.