Satchmo in Cairo. CREDIT: United States Department of State (PD).
Satchmo in Cairo. CREDIT: United States Department of State (PD).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: The Evolution of Revolution

Feb 20, 2010

Evgeny Morozov challenges commonly held interpretations of cyberspace and revolution in a Wall Street Journal essay, "The Digital Dictatorship." He questions whether the ideas in John Perry Barlow's 1996 "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" were prescient or merely amount to techno-utopianism. I asked Barlow, a founder of the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, why he felt the need to write it. "The reasons I wrote it are as obvious now as they were then," he said. "I wrote it as a declaration of things as I believed they had come to be."

Does Morozov's challenge hold? His essay starts off as if it will survey the Internet's overall revolutionary potential: "It's fashionable to hold up the Internet as the road to democracy and liberty in countries like Iran, but it can also be a very effective tool for quashing freedom." The piece nevertheless takes a narrow focus on the popular social media sites Facebook and Twitter, as if those two tools are the only digital avenues available to revolutionaries looking to galvanize a movement. This is not the case.

Many of the platforms that are very useful when considering a revolution have little to do with social media. True revolutionaries have always been forced to find less obvious methods of communication during the process of forging core philosophical tenets on which to base a transformative movement. Many revolutions have a single figure or elite cadre at the forefront, though their individual achievements are always bolstered by collaborative acts executed at opportune moments that the movement has created.

Social media, however, does not easily lend itself to the emergence of one hero or heroine, and this has benefits while it also presents challenges. Everyone wants to be a character and to participate in some way. This leads to a proliferation of opinions based on emotion rather than analysis. Further, opinion-evangelists are unlikely to fully grok the complex framework of personal beliefs and material conditions that leads to the development of their own cherished opinions. This is a hugely distracting aspect of living in a "free speech" society. It's so distracting, in fact, that it's easy to see why some intellectuals would recoil from bastions of opinion-sharing such as Twitter and Facebook at the perceived peril of longer, fact-based, thoughtfully researched works.

Revolution is Hard Work

I agree with Morozov that Twitter and Facebook can potentially present more harm than good when it comes to creating and executing a real revolution, but so could drawing your pistol slower back in the wild wild West. His points are well made about the effects of splintered opinions and factions in Iran eroding the centralization of the protests last summer, but I don't agree with his assessment that the Green Movement "may have simply drowned in its own tweets." Revolution is hard work, and lethal. Of course social media isn't going to be an easy answer for conflict and social imbalance that has led to violence. We have a long road ahead, even with the best intentions, when it comes to mastering any medium, much less one that has created unprecedented global communication.

Time-Tested Ways of "Wielding Power"

Morozov asserts that the growing diplomatic fascination with social media is perhaps merely a sign of frustration with conventional instruments of leverage: "While sanctions and negotiations ... do not get us very far with China and Iran, social media as a tool of foreign policy has the unique advantage of being untested. It never failed—so it must be working."

For the last few years, my collaborator Joshua S. Fouts (former founding director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and a technology visionary who worked at the State Department in the early days of the Internet) and I have attended public diplomacy gatherings in over a dozen countries. At almost every encounter, the famous picture of Louis Armstrong (above) surrounded by children is displayed and a conversation about "the new jazz" takes shape. It has been over fifty years since the State Department hosted delegations as impressive and evocative as Louis, Dizzy, and Duke. That's a lot of pressure.

Is "Social Media" the New Jazz?

Morozov's op-ed was written in response to the State Department's current Russian Tech Delegation (#RusTechDel on Twitter). The participants have been live-tweeting and inviting questions from their followers. But is social media the new jazz? Does Ashton Kutcher, one of the participants, a comedy actor and businessman who became a social media sensation only because he was already a celebrity, really have the same magnetic power as the jazz greats wordlessly shattering illusions so deeply entrenched in the human psyche? No, only music can reach the realm of unspeakable pain and injustice that afflicts so many people around the world, and that's not what today's Russia delegation is attempting.

Can a group of dedicated tech-focused Americans make a difference in Russia? Absolutely, and not just because they are encouraging more people around the world to use Facebook and Twitter.

Systems are Transforming

I chatted with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey before he left for Siberia and he told me that the point of the trip is to try and determine ways in which technology can be used to undermine some of the greatest injustices afflicting individuals in each of the locations the delegation visits, which included a trip to Baghdad last spring. In Russia, for example, human trafficking is a major issue.

As for Ashton Kutcher, he is eminently qualified to participate in this mission due to his use of technology to make life better for countless Africans affected by malaria. Morozov's piece, while provocative and well written, misses the nature of what is actually being attempted on the ground in Russia.

The true problem, which existed long before social media, is that a dictatorship requires absolutism in order to maintain power, and part of the problem revolutionaries face when pitted against a dictatorship is that the centralization their movements require is itself a form of mild absolutism, contingent on the development of a core morality, which can run counter to the rhetoric and motivation of greater freedom that often propels them.

Now What?

While Morozov focuses on what he perceives to be an illusion of "techno-utopianism," I would argue that the illusion runs even deeper, because even successful revolutions eventually morph into the hard reality of "now what?"

And "now what" will not be solved on Twitter or Facebook, but rather within complex platforms that foster design and simulation of better systems that benefit more human beings, which is what the #RusTechDel is attempting. The sum total of the Internet is not just social media, but also the facilitation of more thoughtful, sophisticated design of systems that will undermine human suffering and give us a greater understanding of the common bonds that make us human and ultimately give our lives meaning.

I absolutely support the ongoing development of meaningful social media and its ability to make us more complete, connected human beings. It is revolutionary in itself that Evgeny Morozov and the Wall Street Journal can get so many people thinking, talking, blogging, and musing about revolution on a Saturday morning!

Rita J. King is a former senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, the CEO and creative director of Dancing Ink Productions, and innovator-in-residence at IBM Analytics Virtual Center. Follow @RitaJKing on Twitter.

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