iRevolution or Control-Alt-Delete?

The Information Revolution has brought us iPods, iPhones and iRevolutions. What are iRevolutions? They are what SmartMobs do. Think about it, what do you get when you give activists engaged in nonviolent social resistance increasingly decentralized, distributed and mobile technologies? That’s right, an iRevolution. Just like iPods and iPhones have empowered their owners by rendering them more autonomous and by increasing the number of buttons they can press, so has the Information Revolution empowered local activists and transnational networks—albeit to circumvent control and censorship by coercive states, i.e., by pressing their buttons.

Clearly, the information revolution has dramatically reduced the costs of networked communications. However, does this enable civil society to more effectively mobilize action, influence centralized regimes and to get out of harm’s way when the regimes decide to crack down? Or are states becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to control the flow of information?

The general consensus based on a recent study is that coercive states now have the upper hand in using ICT to control and suppress politically sensitive information such as human rights abuses. However, the literature on the information revolution and its impact on state-society relations is not consistent. Current studies suffer from two important limitations that cast sufficient doubts on the conclusion that coercive states have the upper hand in the information revolution.

First, the terms “information revolution” and “Internet” are used interchangeably throughout the literature even though: (i) the majority of studies generally focus on the Internet exclusively, and (ii) the information revolution includes additional means of communication, such as mobile phones. In other words, the literature focuses almost exclusively on assessing the effect of the Internet instead of evaluating the aggregate impact of the information revolution on antagonistic state-society relations.

Second, the two terms are purposefully not differentiated on the basis that the predominant feature of the information society is the spread of the Internet. While this is true of the most industrialized democratic societies, it is not the case for the majority of developing countries experience conflict and/or repressive regimes. Indeed, mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT in developing countries and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these countries.

So who will win this cat-and-mouse game? I don’t know. But then again, that’s why I’m doing a dissertation on this topic.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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