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Protest Infatuation and the 4th Wave of Democratization (2)

In part two of David Sasaki's essay on the roles of technology, social networks and social activism in democratization, he reflects on the impact of growing up connected to computers and examines the social media-fueled protest movements of 2011.

by David Sasaki On January 3, 2012

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Growing Up With a Gameboy

I was born in 1980, two years before Margaret Thatcher claimed that we were reaping what was sown in the Sixties. I was nine years old when crowds of East and West Germans chipped away at the Berlin wall, greeting each other with celebratory hugs. My parents let me stay up late into the night with a bowl of ice cream to witness the historic moment. The same year my father brought home our first computer, a Macintosh SE. Apple’s first attempt at a fully enclosed, appliance-like desktop computer, the SE had a 20 megabyte hard drive, one megabyte of RAM, and an 8 megahertz processor. In comparison, the cell phone in my pocket has a 32,000 megabyte hard drive, 512 megabytes of RAM, and a 1,000 megahertz processor.

As a child I would turn on the magical, new machine, head to the kitchen to make toast, and then return before the operating system was fully booted. Mostly I used it to play games, but the computer came bundled with a program called HyperCard, which was based on Ted Nelson’s theories of hypertext and hypermedia — forms of inter-linked, multimedia content that could not be represented on paper; to print it out was to lose its meaning. The most famous and lasting version of hypertext is the HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, which was developed in 1989, the same year that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the violent suppression of pro-democracy activists in China. Even as a nine-year-old boy, my early experience with the HyperCard program opened my eyes to the fact that the future of communication would be interactive, linked, and always evolving.

In 1989 the desktop computer was still not a reference source. Having already spent so much money on the Macintosh SE, my parents could not afford the illustrious Encyclopædia Britannica, despite the traveling salesmen’s best efforts. Instead we opted for the more affordable 1988 edition of World Book Encyclopedia. In total, I read around 100 of its nearly 14,000 pages. By the early 1990s most new computers included CD-ROM drives. Unlike traditional floppy disks that stored less than a megabyte of information, compact discs stored nearly 700 megabytes. In 1993 Microsoft took advantage of this expansion of portable memory and released its Encarta digital encyclopedia with nearly 50,000 unique entries, hundreds of images, a world atlas, and a comprehensive dictionary. Never before had so much knowledge taken up so little physical space. Throughout high school Microsoft Encarta became the go-to reference source for nearly every homework assignment. I quickly became accustomed to a startling new reality; the answer to my every question was just a quick search away. (In 2009 Microsoft discontinued Encarta; Wikipedia now receives 98% of all visits made to online encyclopedias.)

In the fall of 1996 I signed up for my first Hotmail email account. That same year I signed up for an ICQ instant messaging account, and spent many nights chatting with the same friends I saw every day at school, but also occasionally with complete strangers. Throughout college (1998 – 2002) the Internet was still something of a Wild West. On the one hand, it became more commercial with the launch of eBay, PayPal, Amazon, and thousands of other ventures that eventually burned out during the dot-com bust. On the other hand, many of the laid-off employees began contributing to open source programming languages, software programs, and platforms like PHP, the Firefox browser, and Wikipedia. Programmers began to focus on the development of websites that provide social value rather than sell products.

In 2002 I created my first social networking profile on Friendster. The next year I followed most of my friends to MySpace. By 2005 a regular day would include five or six updates to several different blogs, even more updates to profiles on MySpace and Facebook, a number of Skype voice calls with contacts around the world, and dozens of emails and IM conversations. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt frequently points out, every two years the human species now creates as much information as we did from the dawn of humankind up until 2003. Likewise, a study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that in 2008 the average American consumed 34 gigabytes of information per day, an increase of about 350 percent since 1980.

I offer this personal account to demonstrate how I — and millions like me — grew up with new technologies that inevitably affected how I saw the world, and how I would try to change it.

The Arab Spring and Beyond

In December 2009 I was in Beirut with some of the most active and activist bloggers from across the Middle East and North Africa. The meeting, organized by Tunisian dissident Sami Ben Gharbia — who would later play an instrumental role in the spring 2011 Tunisian uprising — brought influential Arabic-speaking bloggers and activists together to build a regional knowledge and support network. At some point during the discussions I grew restless. For years I had observed hundreds of well-intentioned online projects that strove to consolidate democracy, but I could point to few results. Just two months earlier I was in Kiev, Ukraine where hundreds of thousands of tech savvy youth brought about the so-called Orange Revolution of 2005 only to see it slowly dissipate into the same corruption and political clientelism as before. Back at the meeting in Beirut, I turned to some of my new Egyptian friends and asked them just what they were hoping to accomplish. “Get Mubarak out of power,” they replied in unison. That was their one goal, and they claimed that until it became a reality, it made no sense to focus on any others.

The Year in Protests, So Far

The worldwide protests of 2011 go far beyond what the media have dubbed the ‘Arab Spring.’ In November 2010 students rallied in central London against the government’s increase of school fees. Though the hike in tuition narrowly passed, the protests were seen as largely successful in holding politicians to a far greater level of scrutiny and accountability than they were accustomed to. As the media emphasized, the protests were organized almost completely using online tools.

Just as the UK student protests began to wind down, a new movement was building in Tunisia, where well-organized opposition groups took advantage of escalating protests against youth unemployment and high food prices to ouster long time authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Once again, commentators cited social media as instrumental tools in organizing the protests. Andrew Sullivan and others quickly dubbed it a “Wikileaks Revolution,” ignoring years of on-the-ground constituency-building by groups like Nawaat. The successful movement to ouster Ben Ali inspired similar opposition groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Egyptian protesters were able to force out President Hosni Mubarak in just three weeks — after nearly 30 years of dictatorial rule. Major protest movements also took place — and continue to take place — in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman.

Meanwhile, in Europe, austerity measures provoked the so-called “Desperate Youth” of Portugal and the “May of Facebook” movement in Greece. In nearby Spain tens of thousands of mostly youth protesters camped out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Plaza, demanding their very own “Spanish Revolution.” The movement was rooted in the “Real Democracy Now” online platform, which called for the evolution of political representation to catch up with the pace of technological innovation. The acampadas, or “camps,” of protesters throughout Spain then inspired similar youth protests in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador — all of which were organized on Twitter and Facebook.

The protest fever also spread to Sub-Saharan Africa. Gabonese activists both inside the country and abroad used social media to draw attention to the human rights abuses of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo. In Senegal the Twitter hashtag #ticketwade was used to organize successful protests against a proposed constitutional amendment that would change electoral rules. In Uganda, the government went so far as to request that internet service providers block access to Facebook and Twitter as anti-government protests built-up amid rising food and gas prices.

In Latin America social media have been instrumental in organizing protests against: violence in Mexico, a university tuition hike in Puerto Rico, and a proposed hydro-electric dam in Chile. Even in the United States, long free of traditional protest movements, social media have helped bring together students and unions in opposition to proposed legislation that takes rights away from workers. Tens of thousands of Malaysians organized a “Bersih 2.0” rally to push through electoral reforms. As I write, a streaming video of student protests against the privatization of education in Chile hangs in the background on my desktop. Tech savvy activists taped an iPhone to a balloon and live-streamed the day’s protests to thousands of viewers across the world.

Out of Work, Losing Hope

Just halfway into 2011, the protests of 1968 (“the year that rocked the world”) look minor in comparison. It would be wrong, however, to view today’s protest movements only through the prism of technology. We must also consider social, environmental, political, and economic factors.

Thousands of young demonstrators gather in the centre of Madrid in May 2011 to protest against rising unemployent.

A few months before British students began organizing their protest movement on social networks, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization released an extensive report on youth unemployment which warned of a “lost generation” of young people that have given up their search for meaningful work. According to the report, “of some 620 million economically active youth aged 15 to 24 years, 81 million were unemployed at the end of 2009 — the highest number ever.” Not only were they under-employed, but many were “over-educated,” having taken out massive school loans while trusting the advice of their parents and politicians that a university degree was the fast track certificate to financial stability.

In 1968, Western youth reacted to social alienation, a by-product of years of economic and middle class growth. Rapid industrialization created factory and office jobs with decent salaries but often numbing work routines. The suburbanization of residential areas stifled self-expression and induced uniformity. Unlike their grandparents who grew up during the depression, or their parents who grew up during times of war, the youth of 1968 had all of their basic needs (food, shelter, safety) met. But their higher needs (a sense of belonging, esteem, self-actualization) were still wanting. Similarly, the youth of today are also products of extreme, global economic growth. Even taking the 2008 financial crisis into account, the entire global economy still doubled in size from 2000 – 2010. In 2009 The Economist magazine declared that “for the first time in history more than half the world is middle-class.” Furthermore, according to World Bank data, all levels of school enrollment have skyrocketed over the past ten years.

In other words, depending on your definitions and methodologies, a majority of youth across the world are now growing up in middle class homes and attending secondary education. They enter adulthood with greater schooling, skills, and expectations than their parents, but rarely with secure employment. The invention of the automobile created millions of jobs in the 20th century, whereas one of today’s most talked-about companies, Facebook, has just over 1,000 employees. Today’s youth grew up ready to take on the world, but too many are left working in coffee shops and supermarkets. Around the world this phenomenon was quickly adapted by local politicians and pundits. Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Peter Coy offers an assortment of buzzwords:

In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Their counterparts in Egypt, who on Feb. 1 forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won’t seek reelection, are the shabab atileen, unemployed youths. The hittistes and shabab have brothers and sisters across the globe. In Britain, they are NEETs—”not in education, employment, or training.” In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they’re “boomerang” kids who move back home after college because they can’t find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its “ant tribe”—recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.

In Mexico they are called “ninis” — shorthand for “neither studies nor works” — and they have been blamed by pundits for the increase in the country’s violence. One governor even went so far as to propose mandatory military service for all Mexican youth who are not enrolled in school or employed.

They Let Us Down

It is all too easy to assume that unemployed youth are taking to the streets because they have nothing else to do, but such a conclusion ignores some crucial factors. Young people in the United States who “grew up green” were dismayed by Obama’s bailout of the automobile industry, a 20th century technology that will continue to cause environmental harm, but offers few new jobs for young people. Why not invest the $25 billion in research and development to create employment in the renewable energy sector?

Then came the bailout of the financial sector in the United States and Europe. Banks propped up with over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money in 2008 and 2009 went on to reward their irresponsible executives with obscenely large bonuses. The US and EU bailed out private banks with taxpayer money, and then went on to make major cuts in the public sector, including education and social security.

The price of commodities has soared. World food prices have more than doubled since 1990 and Oxfam predicts that the trend will only accelerate over the next 20 years. Higher gas prices raise the cost of daily commutes, winter heating, and summer vacation. But the oil companies are not only taking in record profits; they also receive $4 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies in the United States.

Privatization trends are also igniting protests. The ongoing privatization of education, for example, was behind the major protests in the UK and Chile, as were successive increases in tuition for higher education. Once seen as a right for all, higher education is increasingly a privilege for the wealthy.

Finally, over the past 20 years, the implementation of electoral democracy has expanded significantly from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia to Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. But the symbolic right to vote (think of all those Newsweek covers with a raised purple finger) has expanded at a faster pace than the institutions and characteristics on which real representative democracy depends, such as freedom of press, civic participation, and accountability.

In short, the youth of today have plenty to be fed up about, but, like the youth of 1968, they have mostly been excluded from the powers and policies that will decide their future. Instead, they have taken their activism to the Internet and, increasingly, to the streets.

Anti-Power and Counter-Power

Long before the protests of 2011 began to take shape, an entire pseudo-academic industry emerged in the publishing houses and conference auditoriums of major cities to repeatedly dissect a seemingly simple question: do social media cause social revolutions? On one end of the spectrum, Evgeny Morozov, the very person who popularized the term “Twitter Revolution” in the spring of 2009, went on to publish The Net Delusion, a stinging critique of the use of online tools to foment protest and revolution. On the other end of the spectrum was Andrew Sullivan who seemed to proclaim “the revolution will be Twittered” every time more than 50 people gathered in a public place. Then New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell jumped in the fray to have a go at explaining “why the revolution will not be tweeted.” A week later Turkish professor Zeynep Tufekci penned an extensive takedown of Gladwell’s poorly received article, which one commentator referred to as his “tripping point.” Somewhere in the middle of all this back and forth were Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman who argue that social media are powerful new instruments in the toolbox of activists, but that the success of any movement depends on how those tools — and others — are used by the activists themselves.

Strangely, there was one question that all the pundits seemed equally willing to ignore: what happens after all the protests and revolutions? University of Texas professor Dave Parry eventually declared on his blog that social media have indeed proven effective at stirring up revolution, but then he asked, “are they bad for democracy?” What if social media tools incentivize incessant protest rather than the new forms of civic participation and transparency necessary for a functioning 21st century democracy?

The Egyptian activists I met in Beirut were successful at forcing Mubarak out of power, but what will come next? There are still no signs of a functioning government, or plans for new democratic institutions, and yet many of the same protesters continue to raise their fists in Tahrir Square, though their motivations are murky. A 62-year-old homemaker, passing by the broken bottles and stones from yet another clash between police and youth, asked: “What’s this all for? Commodities are expensive; life isn’t any better. What have these youth and protests done for us?” Writing for Al Jazeera, Esther Dyson expressed her concern that Egyptian youth are not yet aware that running a government is not as easy as “running a Facebook group.”

Again, Dave Parry:

While generally I am a cautious optimist when it comes to the question of does social media enable people to resist and coordinate against oppressive regimes, I am far more skeptical on the question of whether or not social media-powered revolutions yield stability. They might be really good in the short term, but the attributes which make social media powerful in the short term, might also be a hindrance in the long term.

To frame the problem, Parry borrows two concepts from sociologist John Holloway: counter-power and anti-power. Counter-power is an attempt to replace one power structure with another. Most traditional revolutionary conflicts have begun this way, with an opposition movement that attempts to replace the group currently in power. For example, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution sought to replace the government of Viktor Yanukovych with that of Viktor Yushchenko, who was seen by the youth as less corrupt and more modern. Or, reaching back even further, Mao Zedong inspired Chinese peasants to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party. Anti-power, on the other hand, aims not to substitute power structures, but rather to undo the current power structure without any notion of what ought to come next. It is easier to build a coalition around anti-power because the framing of resistance rests solely on what’s wrong, not on what ought to be done. “In the case of Egypt, the movement seems to me more constituted by anti-power — get rid of the current regime; and less around any other institution replacing the existing one,” writes Parry. “The protesters were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear.”

No protest movement of 2011 is more representative of anti-power than the so-called “Spanish Revolution.” “This isn’t a protest against any particular politician or political party,” remarked one protester, “this is a rejection of the entire political class.” In fact, the most commonly cited success of the protest movement is a lack of voter turnout in the May elections.

Spanish discontentment consolidated in 2008 when then-President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero approved a government bailout of the financial sector similar to the bailout approved by his American counterpart, Barack Obama. Soon Spain’s public debt skyrocketed. As journalist Bernardo Gutiérrez recounts, “while unemployment reached record highs in 2010, the 35 largest companies at Madrid’s stock market announced profits of 50 billion euros, 24.5% more than in 2009. Telefónica caused an outcry when the company fired 6,000 workers in Spain while announcing EUR 450 million in bonuses to its executives and 6.9 billion in dividends to its shareholders.” Resentment among Spain’s mostly unemployed youth then turned into outrage when the government passed the highly controversial Internet regulatory legislation known as “Ley Sinde,” which allows for the shutdown of any website without due process. Significantly, Gutiérrez notes that while 92% of Spanish youth are regular Internet users, only 10% of Spanish MPs use Twitter. Networks of activists converged around the online platform “Real Democracy Now!” which called for a massive demonstration against the political class, and for … well, it’s not exactly certain.

If Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was the intellectual fountainhead of 1968, then it is another Frenchman, the 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, whose book Time of Outrage is to be found in the backpacks and iPads of European protesters today. The thin booklet, which calls on readers to get angry about the state of modern society, even topped the Christmas bestseller list in France. Hessel, who was tortured by the Nazis for his resistance during World War II, says that it is time to resist the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” by defending the “values of modern democracy.” But that is essentially where he leaves readers. The French philosopher, Luc Ferry, responded with an open letter in Le Figaro, which admonished Hessel for inciting outrage without offering any constructive suggestions. Indignation, writes Ferry, is a sentiment “that is applied only to others, never to oneself, and real morality starts with demands one makes on oneself.” Prime Minister François Fillon added that “nothing would be less French than apathy and indifference, but indignation for indignation’s sake is not a way of thinking.” In other words, Ferry and Fillon criticize Hessel for encouraging anti-power resistance without offering any constructive proposal.

Some critics say that the rhetoric of Stéphane Hessel and the Spanish Revolution smack of 1968 utopianism, but for Michel Bauwens “the relative indeterminacy of the Spanish movement is not a bug, but a feature.” He even declares that the protest movement in Spain is the “Ground Zero for the start of a process towards deep transformation of our civilization and political economy.” It has been said that the protests in Spain were in part inspired by similar protests in Iceland and neighboring Portugal. Buoying Bauwens thesis, the Spanish protesters then inspired peers in Greece, and now across the world with the “Take the Square!” campaign, which has registered over 800 protests on its map so far. It calls on readers to keep organizing such protest campouts far into the future until global revolution is achieved.

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This article originally appeared on David Sasaki’s blog.

Image Credits: Flickr CC soopahgrover, pamhule, cesarastudilo, Abode of Chaos,

Part One – Digital Nativism & May 1968

Part Three – The Future of Youth Activism

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