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by Steven Levy
It's easy to get caught up with the horse races of Facebook versus Google or Microsoft versus Apple or record labels versus the Internet. But in nearly 30 years of covering technology I find that the major conflicts are those of philosophy, politics and power. You could almost view the past few decades as a spectacular cycle of fantasy novels with the Hacker Spirit as the protagonist and amazing supporting characters including Steve Jobs, Richard Stallman, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Stephen Wolfram, Whitfield Diffie, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg (all of whom I've spent considerable time interviewing.) And as our lives are more intertwined with the giant digital shift, these conflicts are ever more vital. Here's an attempt to deconstruct a revolution--and point to what's ahead.
It takes optimism to launch revolutions, to believe that you can end decades of dictatorship and that you deserve freedom and dignity. Why are the people of the Middle East and North Africa - all too aware of the challenges they face in rising up to despots - more optimistic about their revolutions and uprisings than those outside the region - who all too often take for granted their own freedoms?
Instead of guns and knives, the revolutionaries who descended upon Tahrir Square on Feb. 1 packed a potent arsenal of technological tools that ended the corrupt, 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Their weapons of choice: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – everyday tools that can be used to plan a party or plot a revolution.
“We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world,” wrote one protester in a particularly succinct tweet.
But with one third of the world living under Internet censorship, the tools we take for granted in America are precious commodities elsewhere. When Mubarak’s government hit the kill switch, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – and those using these tools to rally – were rendered powerless. When the Internet goes black, as it did Jan. 27, how do revolutionaries access these invaluable social channels to communicate, mobilize and ultimately overthrow an unjust government? How do citizens in radio silence tune into the rest of the world – without incurring the wrath of their government? What are the tools behind the tools that every revolutionary should include in his tool kit? And why should you care?
In 1985 London boiled in a summer of unrest known as the Boardwater Farm Riots. Some 26 years later, last summer's London Riots began under much the same circumstances yet grew to be dramatically more destructive. The primary difference between the two events: the present-day existence of social media. As a result the London Riots of 2011 were meticulously documented in millions of Tweets, BBM messages, Internet news mentions, and Facebook posts. The electronic record tells a fascinating tale of social media’s role in the chaos, from its provision of “utilities” for riot planners and onlookers to its ability to steer the event’s emotional tone. Framed in the context of the Arab Spring uprising that came before and the Occupy Movement that would follow, this presentation offers a unique view into one of the most devastating illustrations of social media's power the world has known and the role it plays for revolutionaries, rioters, and rebels alike.
9th–13th March 2012