Technology and Revolution

Last night’s After the Dictators event at City University, organised by The Olive Tree Middle East Forum, got me thinking about the influence of technology on the recent events in the region.

Both of last night’s speakers – Dr Maha Azzam, of Chatham House, and Roger Cohen, of the New York Times – spoke with enthusiasm of the new “Facebook generation”, and how the knowledge and communication gap between ruler and ruled had been closed as a result of Twitter and smartphone technology.

To a student of innovation, like me, this is a tantalising claim. It suggests that technology has the capacity to facilitate tremendous change for oppressed peoples. It would be hard to avoid getting excited about that idea.

But without data, how can we truly know if recent events in the Middle East are the result of these technological innovations, or stem from some other more latent factor?

And, more to the point, why should we care? What difference does it make whether revolution derives from technological shifts, from the role of the army, from the actions of women, or whatever? Isn’t the important thing simply that these events are happening, and causal considerations are by the by?

I would argue that it is important. If you believe that all people have the right to choose the constitution of their state, and if there is a possibility that new technology can be used to increase the chances of that happening, then shouldn’t we know that it’s possible and how it can be done?

Equally, if new technology is not the cause, shouldn’t we know that too, so people can invest their time in often risky behaviour where it actually makes a difference?

Being a researcher of innovation in organisations, this question falls mostly outside of my field of expertise. But, I do have a few ingredients to throw into the pot.

Our understanding of the communication process has undergone some changes of its own over the last fifty years. For many years, communication scholars thought of a two-step flow, where (1) mass media transfer information to opinion leaders, who then (2) pass on information using interpersonal influence.

Since then, through the work of Everett Rogers amongst others, we have found that two steps just isn’t enough. Rogers argued that, as they internalise new ideas, individuals pass through five stages, all of which warrant consideration when modelling communication.

Communication is an intriguing subject because of what we know, but also because of what we don’t know. Currently, we don’t know if our understanding is up to date with innovations like Twitter. We don’t know whether to consider Twitter a word-of-mouth process, a mass media process, a bit of both, or something entirely new.

The good news is we should be able to find out.

Given we can see where a person tweets, given we can see the time of that tweet, and given we can follow whoever we wish, we should be able to build up a pretty sophisticated map of recent events. And, we should then be able to correlate that tweet-map with other events – like speeches and protests, for instance.

I’m not suggesting this will tell us everything – when answered, often the most interesting questions have a habit of throwing up further questions – but I am making a plea to communication scholars to seriously consider this issue for further research.

I’ll end by recounting the story of Wael Ghonim, a marketing executive at Google, who was imprisoned by Egyptian authorities. Since his release, Ghonim has over 100,000 followers on Twitter. On the day of release, he wrote,

"Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for"

Comments

Super, thanks for posting this up Sam.

This is fantastic, but I think it has much more power than just for those living under a dictator.  I think this is heralding a fundamental way in which people live and behave.  It's changing the way we expect services to be delivered and for me will have just as big an impact on the developed world as the developing one.

There's a nice piece here about how the middle-east can find new leaders for the coming times.

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/arabic/article.cfm?articleid=2633

"This is the big and depressing reality," Cappelli says. "If tomorrow you just waved your hand and, bang, there's a new government in place that is democratic and representative, the main outcome is that over the next year or so there is going to be only frustration, because people's expectations are enormously high. They have no real experience with democratic institutions, and they don't know that moving from an autocracy to democracy is not going to make everybody's lives better off overnight."

Thanks for your comments, Wayne and Adi.

There's an interesting story here about the fast-growing number of Twitter application developers - official and unofficial.

http://gigaom.com/2011/03/15/heres-why-developers-are-scaring-twitter/

Maybe one of these could develop an app which let's you chart tweet origins more easily...

Read this today Sam and thought you might find it useful.

http://www.fastcompany.com/1743530/is-social-media-the-web-s-weapon-agai...

 

Beauty! Thanks Adi.

Interesting to see that technology was used in slightly less favourable ways during the riots.  Suppose it's to be expected.  What can be used for good can be used for ill and all.

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