There is a girl born in Egypt in the last few weeks .. named ‘facebook’ ..
Who would have thought that a girl would be named Facebook (in gratitude for Facebook’s capacity to bring about democracy in Egypt) .. and for that matter, who would have forseen the dramatic and historic transformation we are witnessing in the Middle East ..
The principles of how societies could move towards democracy through organic, non-violent techniques were described byGene Sharp a few decades ago in his insightful pamphlet called From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation (pdf)
Originally published in Bangkok in 1993 by the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma in association with Khit Pyaing (The New Era Journal), Gene Sharp’s ‘From dictatorship to democracy’ has since been translated into at least thirty-one other languages and has been published in Serbia, Indonesia, and Thailand, among other countries.
Why is the impact of that document being felt only now after a few decades?
What happened between 1993 and 2011?
Even a school kid would be able to guess that the Internet is the single biggest change in that time. But more importantly, the impact of the Internet is only JUST being felt!
Wikipedia outlines an insightful analysis of Gene Sharp’s thinking:
Sharp’s key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organization – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.
In Sharp’s view all effective power structures have systems by which they encourage or extract obedience from their subjects. States have particularly complex systems for keeping subjects obedient. These systems include specific institutions (police, courts, regulatory bodies) but may also involve cultural dimensions that inspire obedience by implying that power is monolithic (the god cult of the Egyptian pharaohs, the dignity of the office of the President, moral or ethical norms and taboos). Through these systems, subjects are presented with a system of sanctions (imprisonment, fines, ostracism) and rewards (titles, wealth, fame) which influence the extent of their obedience.
Sharp identifies this hidden structure as providing a window of opportunity for a population to cause significant change in a state. Sharp cites the insight of Étienne de La Boétie, that if the subjects of a particular state recognize that they are the source of the state’s power they can refuse their obedience and their leader(s) will be left without power.
The ideas were known for decades but they needed an extra element before the ‘Smart Mobs’ could change regimes by non-violent means. That extra element was the ‘Technologies of co-operation (pdf)’ which acts as a kind of blueprint to identify common elements in social technologies
This report, Technologies of Cooperation (SR-897), maps the key concepts and choices associated with eight technology clusters and concludes with a set of seven strategic guidelines:
• Shift focus from designing systems to providing platforms
• Engage the community in designing rules to match their culture, objectives, and tools; encourage peer contracts in place of coercive sanctions by distant authority when possible
• Learn how to recognize untapped or invisible resources
• Identify key thresholds for achieving “phase shifts” in behaviour or performance
• Track and foster diverse and emergent feedback loops
• Look for ways to convert present knowledge into deep memory
• Support participatory identity
Conceptually, these technologies provide the ‘implementation’ for Gene Sharp’s ideas
And the results have been more interesting than anyone could have imagined.
Victor Hugo said that it is not possible to stop an idea whose time has come ..
- Gadaffi’s son know that well when he laments facing a ‘facebook revolution’ – one which is nebulous and hard to control.
- The BBC has become a second hand reporting medium reporting on tweets and videos which we can all see on YouTube and
- On one hand the United States applauds the spread of democracy but on the other hand worries about its 100 Billion USD armaments exports to the middle east
Meanwhile, the impact of the Internet and its collaborative technologies is just beginning.
So, I am hoping that more such babies named ‘Facebook’ will be born in other countries in the near future as democracy reaches them too!
One of my favourite songs Is from Sting called the Russians whose lyrics go
How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too
i.e. in the cold war, when both sides could easily annihilate each other, the only hope was if the ‘Russians loved their children too’
So the last few weeks have shown us that Egyptians and the Libyans and the Tunisians and ..many more countries love their children too .. and that is a cause of hope and optimism for humanity.
Note: This article was originally posted at Howard Rheingold’s forthcoming Rheingold U for which I was privileged to be invited as an early student/participant. Here is Howard Rheingold’s blog about the experiment
Image source: NPR