Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who Moved my Revolution?

(This piece also occurs in the Scroll online magazine. )

Download an audio recording of Hilary Clinton’s Freedom of Internet Speech.  Or stream in some other internet inspired rebellion manifesto by current day thinkers represented by the likes of Jared Cohen, or visionaries like Francis Fukuyama . The last named once proudly proclaimed 1989 to be the end of history.  

Close your eyes, forget the context and float away in the reassuring ramble. “Information freedom ... foundation for global progress ... tools in the hands of people for advancement ....deficiencies in the current market for innovation ... harnessing the power of connection technologies ... long term dividends from modest investments in innovation ... flat world ... connected communication ... Web 2.0”
The excessively empty jargon sounds like eerie approximations of McKinsey-speak. One can almost sense the darkened conference room, projectors beaming meaningless charts and data, with superfluous smatterings of inane inconsequential information on the screen.
The more Washington leans towards the Silicon Valley in rather puerile efforts to electronically re-simulate the samizdat operations of the Cold War era, the more the techno-mingled-drivel of such talks echo the colossal ignorance that reverberate across the corporate CEO meetings.
It is of little surprise that the Freedom of Internet speech of Hilary Clinton has been tagged by some alternative media sites with the keyword ‘ignorance’. Not unjustified. Asked about Twitter a few days before the Iranian revolution broke out, the leading lady had responded, “I wouldn’t know a Twitter from a tweeter, but evidently it’s very important.”
If one pauses for a moment of sanity amidst the furious beeps and clicks of a connected concept of cyber utopia, one cannot help but shudder at the thought of the world being liberated by leaders with self confessed unawareness of the very tools they claim to be magic pills.

We see at work the same wishful thinking with belligerent yet bird-brained buzzwords that characterise millions of Senior Management meetings. Only, in this case, the decision makers are people with phenomenal power, with actual ability to influence the world, who have in their hands technologically advanced and extremely interconnected tools that they do not understand. As discussed in another article, an email sent by one such ill advised policymaker to the administrators of a Social Media Tool can actually compromise the freedom and lives of actual dissidents across the world. Scary? It indeed is.

While the phrase ‘Internet Freedom’ is searched more frequently from Washington area than Iran and the fragmented former Soviet Union nations put together, the policy makers are gaga about the new social media avatars of the samizdat press and the Radio Europe movements that supposedly managed to crumble the Berlin Wall, and folded the Iron Curtain into storage rooms of a half remembered past.

Buzzwords – another very corporate phenomenon – raise their noisy heads with the ingratiating yet convincing smiles. The architectural magnificence and geographical prominence of the Great Wall of China lends itself to the creation of misleading metaphors such as Great Firewall. The legions of politicians for whom 1989 is a self proclaimed feather in semi-thinking caps, pronounce aphorisms influenced by another Wall:“As networks spread around the globe, virtual walls are cropping up in places of visible walls.”
Leaders who have smugly fitted  into the political power-works by manipulating the bipolar world prior to 1989 harp that the Iron Curtain has been replaced by “a new information curtain descending across much of the world” where it is claimed that “viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of the day.”

The dangers of such proclamations and the pitfalls of celebrating bloggers as modern day dissidents have been discussed in other articles of the issue, notably by my lovely friend Shruti Rattan. Here I am looking at the unnerving similarity of these declarations with similar decrees in the corporate world – where each and every company of the day is trying to chisel its social networking strategy into a silver bullet with the same chronic short term thinking that is the signature of the industry and, perhaps, the cause of cycles of booms and busts.

In the mid to late 90s, the software world was being steered by senior management made up of experts in third generation languages like COBOL. Simultaneously, there was a lot of excitement about the relatively new Object Oriented Technologies.  There lie in several archives of the industry huge quantities of code written in new generation syntax and semantics, feebly powered by old, procedural design. The platform of coding was changed to imprint the stamp of progress, but the erstwhile experts who engineered the changes often did not have the knowhow to benefit from the features of fourth generation object oriented languages. Enormous systems still chug along on these Jurassic algorithms in the then cutting edge outfit. The result has been a huge waste of money, manpower and efficiency.

In current events, we witness a similar trend in the political scenario. Historical parallels and inviting metaphors can make for great rhetoric, but it is ridculous to base decisions on wordplay and play havoc with the lives of other people.
Reusing the so called best practices of the pre 1989 era, implementing a blanket model that has supposedly worked in remarkably different conditions – along with a bull headed initiative to tweak every innovation into such propaganda are pathetic parallels of the uncommitted world of corporate cubicles.
While the oedipal obstinacy to come out of the cold war parentage while dealing with completely different global situations can be of professional interest to Freudian analysts, basic questions still remain about whether the samizdat offering of leaflets, propaganda, books, photocopies, Radio Europe and so on were actually driving forces behind the fall of communism. There have been arguments that people in GDR were more interested in shows like Miami Vice than in assembling for protests. Was it really the underground photocopiers, or was it the chain of events leading to plummeting oil industry and rising food prices that led to the wall going down in 1989? We are not discussing that here, although it would not be ill-advised to pause and think about it before tweeting propaganda.

In other articles we have pointed out why the current platform of Social Media, with its messy electronic footprints, is far more dangerous for the activist than Samizdat.  We have also dealt with the online version of slacktivists, reverse propaganda and the effect of cheap entertainment triumphing over dissidence. Here I would like to add that millions of connections between millions of people on the internet is a very, very complicated affair. Generalised optimistic jargon filled proclamations about cyber utopia and the messianic merits of the Socially Networked World can be fine for fifteen minutes of spotlight. But, no one can honestly predict the future of such a connected world yet.

The complexity of the electronic mesh that entangles everyone consists of too many parameters. It is prone to the chaotic phenomenon of small changes creating an immense domino effect. It is impossible to predict which way such a connected world will react to the ripples, through integration or falling to bits.
Till such a time that we can form an informed prediction in this information chaos, it may be a good idea to take the deafening optimistic sound and fury about cyber rebellion with the same cynical nonchalance with which we attend management review meetings.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

About Simon

My photo
Amsterdam, Netherlands