The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power

Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen published this piece in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. It was a notable step up from the “Cyberspace and Democracy” article in the same issue. In any case, Eric and Jared address the same core questions I am writing my dissertation on so here’s my take on what they had to say.

I far prefer the term “connection technologies” over “liberation technologies”. I also appreciate the authors’ emphasis on the diffusion of power via mini-rebellions as opposed to full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy. Any serious student or practitioner of strategic nonviolent action knows full well that power is not monolithic but defuse—even in the most autocratic regimes. Repression is driven by obedience. As Gene Sharp noted in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”:

By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule.

This is why power is necessarily diffuse in every single society. Rulers operate thanks to just a few key pillars of support including: the police, military, civil service, educational system, organized religion, media, business and financial communities, etc. These pillars are only there because of obedience—and individuals comprising these pillars always have the power to withdraw their support. In strategic nonviolent action, obedience is regarded as the heart of political power. Indeed, if people do not obey, the decision-makers cannot implement their decisions, simple as that.

Manifestations of disobedience are most powerful when public, which is where mini-rebellions come in. These can slowly but surely erode the pillars of support temporarily propping repressive regimes. Eric and Jared write that, “taken one by one, these effects may be seen as impractical or insignificant, but together they constitute a meaningful change in the democratic process.” Ah, but there’s the rub. How does one string a series of mini-rebellions into more than just a series of mini-rebellions? Otherwise, digital activists run the risk of winning the battles but losing the war.

Here is why lessons learned and best practices from the long history of nonviolent civil resistance and guerrilla warfare are crucial. This was the crux of my response to Malcom Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. Civil resistance takes careful planning, grand strategy to tactics and specific methods. Successful civil resistance movements are not organized spontaneously! Concerted and meticulous planning is key.

There are two principles of strategic planning:

Strategic sequencing of tactics: “The strategic selection and sequencing of a variety of nonviolent tactics is essential. Tactics should be directly linked to intermediate goals which in turn flow from the movement’s or campaign’s grand strategy. There are over 198 documented types of nonviolent tactics, and each successful movement invents new ones” (1).

Tactical capacity building: “Successful movements build up their capacity to recruit and train activists, gather material resources, and maintain a communications network and independent outlets for information, such as encrypted emails, short-text messaging, an underground press, and alternative web sites. This also involves detailed campaign and tactical planning, and efficient time management. Time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle” (2).

This is why I disagree with Eric and Jared when they write that “in many of these cases, the only thing holding the opposition back is the lack of organizational and communications tools, which connection technologies threaten to provide cheaply and widely.” The tools themselves won’t make up for any lack of organizational or communication skills, planning, strategy, and so on.

Towards the end of their article, the authors note that, “these kinds of cat-and-mouse games will no doubt continue…” referring to the dynamic between repressive regimes and resistance movements. The point is hardly whether or not this dynamic will continue. The more serious question has to do with what drives this dynamic, what factors influence whether or not the cat has the upper hand?

If you’re interested in learning more about civil resistance and strategic disruption, I highly recommend reading these short books:


5 responses to “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power

  1. There is no connection between the internet and democracy. It’s a mirage experienced by people who stare too much at their screens. The internet is just a giant machine for making idiots. Has any country become democratic because of the internet? No. It just accelerates good and bad.

    And to become part of this idiot machine you have to spend thousands of dollars on equipment. This is what its advocates call ‘free culture’. Forget about feeding your family, what you need is a computer and your problems solved, right?

    What have have you gained with the Internet? You’ve put you powers of thought and memory and placed them onto another object. What then are you? Very little. The power of thought is reduced because your mind is not required to hold on to such memory. When iPhone-like devices are commonplace, when you are carrying the world’s knowledge in your pocket- what use is memory then? Or even a mind? As MLK said, “our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men.”

    Your powers of thought and memory atrophy. Your automatic spellchecker reduces your ability to spell. How would you know who all your friends are without Facebook? Even your sense of direction shrinks as you rely on GPS systems.

    This is what technology’s advocates call ‘progress’.

    And where do your computers come from? The components from Congo. Six million dead from coltan mining so you can tell your friends on your coltan-powered mobile how coltan-powered laptops are going to spread democracy. Maybe you tell a Congolese civilian, forced at gunpoint to mine for coltan, that the widespread adoption of computers has had a wonderful democratising effect.

    Where are your computers built? From China, busy building its authoritarian government on your half-witted dreams. Not only is their no democracy in China, but you can’t even search for the word. Those who encourage the internet, and more computers for more people as a way of levelling the digital playing field, are responsible for industrial-scale mass murder, as well as boosting the fortunes of an undemocratic regime.

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