2011: The Year the World Said No

In 2011 global protest movements, socially organized and electronically connected, ushered in massive political and economic changes. The “Arab Spring” raged in major cities across the Middle East, the “Occupy” movement consumed riot police from Wall Street to Oakland, and “For Fair Elections” protests shook Moscow to produce ripples as far as Krasnoyarsk. People around the world were united in these movements by the power to say “No” – no to dictatorship, no to indefinite security states, no to human rights abuses, no to gross economic inequality.

Revolutions are not new political phenomenon, and neither is the power of some revolutions to inspire others. But what has changed is the speed with which protestors can organize with others and how quickly the outside world can learn of their efforts. Today’s protesting public is enabled by new technologies: the proliferation of cell phones with text, picture, video, and email features; the mass membership in Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks; the expansion of freelance news reporting and the decentralization of the traditional media; and the reach and reception of global satellite and cable news networks. Taken together, these changes facilitate the flow of news, pass on arguments, and turn friends, contacts, readers, and viewers into activists and protestors.

Vindicated by the dramatic regime changes in the Middle East and the simmering promise of more to come (and elsewhere), the events of the past year suggest that we may be entering (or mark that we have already entered) a new era of global politics shaped by a more informed, empowered, and involved mass public. The technologies that enabled the social upheavals of 2011 have proven themselves effective at articulating and spreading discontent, and at disintegrating oppressive regimes. However, it remains unclear whether these technologies and the political practices they engender can now help build and reinforce benevolent, stable states and social orders. The uncertainty hinges not on whether these nascent states can rein in the various social technologies that undid their predecessors, but whether the new social technologies can facilitate or at least make room for the type of political activity necessary to rebuild civil societies and functioning states.

It is common to note that today’s technological advances—unlike yesterday’s telegram, railroad, or filing cabinet—have done little to expand the reach of the state (though they have made possible a more personalized politics for its top office). Social and new media technologies overwhelm the state’s ability to regulate communication among citizens, do not materially improve the state’s ability to coordinate its own activities and expand their reach, and allow the discontented to easily and broadly appeal to non-state actors and international communities for solidarity and support.

But in the same way that these technologies do not significantly expand the power of the state, they do not empower the entire public and all types of political activity. Instead, they make possible and easier only a specific kind of political person and activity. Fundamentally, this new collection of social and information technologies lets people discover, share, and coordinate (on the other hand, the state formulates, plans, and administers). These activities allow technologically literate people to organize and fight entrenched elites and previously accepted or unknown practices. While sometimes these media house discussion that changes minds, their main forms of persuasion are the persuasion of discovery (“The government did that to them?!”) or the persuasion of example giving others the confidence or desire to voice previously unspoken truths. All this results in a certain political behavior: a roving, reactive, and expansive political consciousness ready to engage with particular issues, express outrage, and fight against injustice. It is the ethos of the protestor, the politics of conscience.

Missing is the politics of construction: creating new institutions, building up their capacity and competency, generating widespread trust in the process and outcomes of politics, and developing public accountability and shared cultural norms. Alongside this is the gradualism of positive progress: repeated and diverse discussions among people of different political views, interests, and involvement, a willingness to compromise and a faith in negotiation, a rooted engagement with institutions, and an acceptance and work toward marginal improvements. With regards to the politics of conscience or the politics of construction, various techno-historical periods have prioritized or supported these types of politics differently, and some of their features are in tension with others. The differences are significant in so far as they shape what particular kinds of politics can do.

The answer to what post-revolutionary politics can do is often far too little (good) or far too much (evil). On one hand, even when power is overthrown, its accessories—elites, government officials, the educated, and the well-to-do—and their networks often remain, and on the other hand, the way revolutionaries seize power requires skills and favors talents that are often the opposite of what is required to exercise power well or to be able to agree who should. However, I think the struggle to develop a post-revolutionary politics is uniquely difficult now. The technological advances and political behavior that helped the protest movements mobilize and overthrow old leaders have replaced other forms of political practice, and the successes in 2011 might accelerate that displacement. However, these new technological advances and political behaviors are poorly suited to building up local institutions, enhancing state capacity, and negotiating compromises—the business of instantiating and stabilizing progress.

The difficulties of replacing leaders may push disillusioned protestors into more thoroughgoing critiques and post-institutional aspirations, and I anticipate that the hopeful headlines of 2011 may in retrospect be seen as only a brief reprieve in a period of growing global disenchantment with the existing order. New technology—above all technology that helps us to socialize—may be building a more morally conscious public. But it will also lead to a more unstable politics and world. The hope is that the former effort overcomes the disappointment and harm of the latter effect.

But beyond the ability of the public to rally in opposition or build together, there is another technological-political future to imagine: a time when advances in big data will supplant the connectivity of social media, and in which the state will once again take the lead over its citizens, protestors or not. It is unclear if we will welcome that future or what we will be able to do to stop it.

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