Disruptive influence

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Nov-Dec 2010

The idea that the Internet would have a big impact on politics and society is not a new one, although it is perhaps only recently that people have realised that widespread mobile phone ownership would have similar impact.

In its early days when few people had heard of the Internet, some argued that eventually it would allow ordinary people access to huge amounts of searchable information, transforming society like printing had done 300 years before. Others took a more practical approach, arguing that it was already a useful tool for people who wanted to change the world. The first Internet-savvy activists used it as a way to smuggle information from countries with repressive regimes. Others used it as a way for workers in factories in different countries to share know-how and demand the same treatment from their transnational employers.

As the net spread and ordinary consumers came on line it became obvious that there would be a direct impact on society – phenomena like blogging and Wikipedia changed the balance of power between publishers and readers, democratizing not just access to information but the ability for ordinary people to get a voice. Politics had to respond to this: in tightly-controlled regimes like China it was well understood that if people heard and understood what life was like in other countries – whether through access to Western media or through connections on social networks  - that could be very dangerous for the status quo. If they were also able to say what they thought about it was doubly dangerous.

Since the first videos were posted on Youtube following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and people realised that social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter were being used to organise demonstrations, the Arab Spring has been characterised as a ‘Facebook revolution’. The same characteristics of social networks and mobile phones that gave birth to the benign and quirky ‘flash-mob’ phenomenon in the developed world – immediacy and anonymity - became a powerful threat to the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Just as the first activists to use on-line technology in the 1980’s had argued, the technology had the power to help change the world when used as an organising tool. The difference was that this time it was on a far bigger scale.

Nevertheless, perhaps the everyday use of the net and social networks by younger people in particular has also been an important driver for the wave of unrest. Social networks offered a taste of freedom of expression – even on trivial matters – and people realised just how constrained their lives were.

Either way, to paraphrase Zhou Enlai, it is far too early to say what the eventual outcome of this technological revolution will be.