Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Revolution 2.Oh Dear

Well, shit. I spend a month mourning a death in the family and all hell breaks loose around the world. That'll teach me to take a break.

Count me among the jaundiced observers of everything from the protests in Madison to the civil war in Libya.

 As someone who makes her living from creating and deploying large scale web-based collaboration sites and always thinking of new ways to incorporate differing communications modes into those sites, I'm distinctly unimpressed by the breathless rah-rah promotion of "social network" tools as some kind of key to a new kind of revolution. If you can Tweet it, they can track it.

Like, duh.

Reliance on systems created for the purpose of tracking you to support clandestine and disruptive activities is going to end up biting the users in their collective ass. Here's a few articles to read and ponder:
  • WSJ - Web's Hot New Commodity: Privacy - While this article is slanted towards the difficulties ad agencies have getting people to respond, it is a good view of exactly how intent the corporate world is on stripping you of your ability to deny them access.
  • ZDnet - url's and authoritarian social network tracking - A cheerfully contrarian take on the role of networks and social connectivity in the face of authoritarian regimes.
The deep problem is that the most prolific users of these social systems, teens and young adults, are A) some of the most conformist members of society and B) some of the least critically aware of socio-politico-economic complexity and C) are far too enamored of their own self-image as "rebels" to think two or three hops down the game tree as to what actual outcomes will be. This is not an argument against rebellion (far from it) but is a warning that the tools touted in the NYT today as methods for subverting despotic regimes may become the preferred instruments of those regimes for crushing the next round.

I'm also getting less enamored of Al Jazeera. Posturing is not news reporting, nor is airing every half-assed tweet, call and video. I get better information about Libya from the WSJ or The Economist. Speaking of the Economist, here is a solid, if unsurprising, evaluation of why Gathafi isn't going to be easy to dislodge - The limpet's legions. One of the reasons that the Libyan army was able to fragment so quickly, with many defections to the opposition, is its decentralized organization. This is in stark contrast to Egypt, where it can act in a semi-autonomous manner from state and society and stay organized in the face of pressure from a regime.The Libyan fragmentation is now part of why there is no unified opposition, which both enables Gathafi to try to dispose of his opponents piecemeal and prevents other nations and groups from taking more decisive action. There is no sufficiently representative entity to negotiate with.

The events in Libya are less like the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain and more like the Balkans. As with the Balkans, we have Russia and China acting as spoilers to prevent UN action in defense of the rebelling population. The Libyans want to get rid of their dictator by their own hook, which is the only way their rebellion can succeed and be viewed as legitimate, but they've got logistical and firepower problems that may be beyond their ability to overcome in a suitably short span of time. The refugee issue is something the UN, EU, US and everybody else can damn well move on with some speed and relieve that burden from the larger situation.

In the end, it turns out that revolutions are done the old fashioned way - by people in the streets, by force of arms, by logistics, ammunition, diplomacy, insider deals, interfering states, and all the traditional methods of political reconstitution. The easy part is the initial revolt. What's uncertain is the state formation and institutionalization that needs to follow. Measured this way, it's not clear to me that Egypt, for example, has had any kind of a revolution (as opposed to a genteel military coup), or that Bahrain is any further along than Iran on the road to popular government. Tunisia has promise, though the influx of refugees may disrupt the cautious agreements arising from those who want a different face to civil and political life and those who like it as it is.

Revolution is not the rebellion. It's the rules that follow.




Some good points, Anglachel.Thanks for sobering up the media on the upheaval in the Middle East.

Bob Harrison said...

Why do so many people have a need to stay connected at all times? I rarely turn my cell phone on (I average two minutes per month) and I have never, nor will I ever, tweet, though my employer is encouraging everyone to get on twitter so they can "keep us informed." Huh. I do have a Facebook account but that's mostly to talk with my kids. Guess I'm just old.

Unknown said...

I turned on twitter a few weeks ago and agree that most twits as well as tweets are superficial. The energy of rebellion is wasted on the young. While it does offer me links to articles that I might not have found on my own, I find myself drawn back to more in-depth sources. (And glad to see you return whenever you do...)

I have asked online during this upheaval, "Why tout the involvement of women on the streets unless they are on the committees that must be forming to set up the structure for the next round/government?" As you say, what of 'actual outcomes'?

I have been met with charges (by non-Muslims) of Muslim-bashing or indifference. But this evening, there have been some more serious discussions of gender in the Arab world and this is heartening.