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Digital, Revolution, and the Digital Revolution

An Egyptian demonstrator confronts riot police during a demonstration after the Friday noon prayer in Cairo on January 28, 2011, to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, 82, who has held on to power for more than three decades.
Mohammed Abed | AFP | Getty Images
An Egyptian demonstrator confronts riot police during a demonstration after the Friday noon prayer in Cairo on January 28, 2011, to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, 82, who has held on to power for more than three decades.

Technology is the classic two-edged sword.

In its broadest sense—as the knowledge or mechanism of achieving a result—technology is agnostic of its ends.

Fire cooks, warms, protects—burns, kills, and destroys.

So, too, of the ultimate technology—nuclear fire. As observed in Kennedy's inaugural: "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

Today, we speak of equally powerful forces: Information and revolution.

The events in Egypt have awakened much hope in the punditry. The popular notion is that advances in information technology will give voice to the disenfranchised—that totalitarian control can be wrested from the hands of corrupt elites as soon as the power to be heard is devolved upon the oppressed.

I cannot share in their precipitate optimism.

Nicholas Thompson, writing yesterday for the New Yorker on-line, eloquently argues the case for the double edged sword of information technology, with regard to social and political revolutions.

His argument, in part, is this: Dissidents can use technology to organize, unite, and protest; conversely, totalitarian regimes can similarly leverage the same technology to monitor, track, and locate.

In my former role, as a 'Technical Expert / Assistant Vice-President' (whatever that may mean) at a large bank, I worked a great deal with technology. I'm far from an expert on social networking, but I think some broad points are worth bringing to bear on the subject at hand.

Technology, when competently employed, tends to disproportionately benefit the existing power structure.

This is true of virtually all other assets: Financial capital, social capital, cultural capital. That is should hold true of technical capital as well should come as no great surprise.

If we return for a moment to Thompson's argument in the New Yorker—that technology can be employed both for and against dissidents—the point becomes clear.

The kind of advantages held by totalitarian regimes—the ability to track, monitor, and locate -- are present over long swaths of time. (Totalitarian regimes, when not consumed by the fires of revolution, tend to toward relative stability.)

And during those times of relative stability, the ability of regimes to gather information on dissidents—and the general population at large—through the use of technology is enormous.

In fact, it is unprecedented.

The cost of mass storage devices has plummeted; 'supercomputer' processing power can now be had within an extremely modest budget. Such technology, easily within the reach of rogue regimes, can be used to configure and superintend an astonishingly ubiquitous and efficient digital police state.

The optimism I read in the media is a little surprising to me for this reason: The well-educated upper-middle class, who compose the majority of opinion makers, seem suspicious of technology at home.

Those who fret about their children not getting hired by a future employer—because of a fraternity party photograph posted on Facebook—don't seem to comprehend the horrific potential of social networking technology in the hands of dictatorial regimes.

(Perhaps this is a testament to the benign comforts of our democracy.)

Which brings us to the opposite side of the equation: That advantages conferred upon dissidents—to organize, unite, and protest.

The unpleasant truth is this: During times when those benefits would be to the greatest advantage of dissidents, totalitarian regimes can simply disable the infrastructure upon which the technology is reliant to operate.

Tweets and Facebook messages—of the 'Storm the palace now!' variety—are not of much use in fomenting revolution when the state controlled mobile phone network has been shut down. Or when the state controlled internet service providers have been unplugged.

The broad outlines of such tactics have already emerged in Egypt. We should have no doubt that oppressive governments will seek to perfect such counter-revolutionary technology.

Totalitarian regimes are notorious for building massively hypertrophied and redundant intelligence apparatuses. With the vast financial and organizational resources of a state, such limited technical ends will not be difficult to achieve.

In short, the advantages conferred on totalitarian regimes by information technology are stable and durable—while the advantages conferred on dissidents by the same technology are highly variable, because the infrastructure upon which they operate remains firmly under the control of the state.

With due respect to the idealistic champions of Twitter and Facebook, their technology is merely a humble—and highly fallible—tool.

Victory over tyranny—victory in spite of all terror, to quote Winston Churchill—will not be won cheaply over the internet.

It will be won by the men and women who are willing to bear its terrific burdens

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