In 2005, the UN accepted the offer of the Tunisian government to host its World Summit on the Information Society in the country. The summit proved more passing foothill than summit in the history of the global information society but it is worth relishing how delicious the ironies of history can sometimes prove. Six years later, an oppressive government has been swept away by the informational forces it was seeking to advance.
History rarely leaps as rapidly as it has since December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouzizi was driven to immolate himself in a Tunis street when police confiscated the vegetable cart on which his livelihood depended. Much has been written and said making sense of the epochal events catalysed by that conflagration in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman and – most bloodily and unpredictably – in Libya and beyond. Little of what follows- written by a semi informed outsider is new - but is a set of semi connected musings on what this means for our understanding of the role of communication in society and in effecting change.
Newly networked communicative power has at last proved more than a match for authoritarian power. We did not know this a scant few weeks ago. The much hyped 2009 twitter revolutions of Iran and Moldova seemed to prove the limits as much as the extent of the power latent in determined, angry, newly networked human society. We now know that the mathematics of power has shifted. Human courage, self discipline and organisation multiplied by the communicative power of networks has equalled unprecedented and (for now and in the main) largely peaceful - political force. Networked social media (in this case principally Facebook) added to the narrative provided by independent television (in this case principally Al Jazeera and the BBC) has delivered decisively in favour of the citizenry. The net did not, as some have reasonably feared work as an authoritarian tool for picking off dissenters.
There are many qualifications to this conclusion. The temptation is to focus more on the technology and media and not enough on the people. It was people who succeeded in overcoming dictatorship, not the internet. Some Egyptians are calling theirs the Naasbook revolution (“naas” meaning “people”) and it is people who drove change, not the technology of Facebook which, in truth, is accessible still to only a small proportion of the Egyptian population. There is temptation too in seeing the current wave of revolutions as somehow uniform (the “internet revolutions”), when very different political, religious, social and poverty dynamics inform each. All maybe rooted in deep-seated (and often middle class) anger at corruption, misgovernance and frustrated political and economic opportunity, but their outcomes will clearly not be defined simply by improved access to information. And the strength of communicative power may only work under certain conditions – not only when a critical mass of people are networked but also when your army promises not to massacre people.
It is nevertheless clear that those Middle East revolutions that have succeeded in at least achieving their initial objective would not have done so without a freshly defined and available communicative power working at the disposal of people, not authority. This being so, some thoughts on where is this communication headed and with what result.
This power – not new, but newly realised - is on the move and in clearer directions: it is shifting downward, southward and eastward – and with contradictory implications.
The downward move is well documented and clear. Communicative power is leaching from elites to masses, institutions to networks, old to young. Recent events have reinforced just how powerful that downward shift is proving in shaping political and social outcomes.
The southward move is becoming more clearly visible each passing day. Some of the southward move can be seen in how the newer southern oriented media players have – especially over recent weeks – become further entrenched as globally respected brands. Al Jazeera is the clearest example of this. More fundamentally, we are moving closer to the age of near ubiquitous global information access. It is the developing world where access to information is exploding and where the political, economic and social consequences are only just pixellating into clearer focus. The next stage of the internet – web 3.0 or the semantic web – is conventionally envisaged as a more sophisticated set of computer relationships. Finer minds than mine are defining what web 3.0 looks like, but in my mind the web 3.0 could as usefully be viewed through a different lens – near ubiquitous global human access to information. Near ubiquity as much as sophistication of function will surely shape the equation between technology and global human society.
Next year will see mobile subscriptions reach the equivalent of the entire global population – the figure already reaches 5 billion. 73% of those will be from the developing world in 2010, up from just over half in 2005. India and China alone accounted for 300 million subscriptions in 2010. The global online population is destined to grow 40% by 2014, up from today’s 1.9 billion. Africa is showing some of the fastest growth.
The digital divide remains and the information revolution will not reach everyone anytime soon. This post was delayed for several days because, being at a conference in sophisticated Gaborone, Botswana, internet access from hotel and conference centre was so difficult. Many hundreds of millions of people will and are being left behind, not everyone will have access any time fast to these technologies and much development attention should focus on those who remain disconnected from a connected world. But we also have to recognise that these technologies have spread faster and deeper within human global society than many thought possible just a few years ago. A combination of demand, the extraordinary adaptive character and evolution of the technology, commercial and individual enterprise, intelligent regulatory regimes (save for a decreasing number of countries such as Ethiopia) and the sheer ingenuity of the human character have confounded the gloomier concerns.
Humanity is getting credibly close to being largely networked. That, to state the obvious, has never happened before. The power of communication will increasingly rest with those who can use it best, and the largest numbers of those are increasingly young and from the developing world.
Predictions of the implications of these changes are a mugs game including for those working within the development sector. The current political turmoil may be headed toward a terrible period of instability which could reach well beyond these countries or for an extraordinary new era of democratic, people driven renewal. The prospects for more ubiquitous access to information may, as events in the Middle East strongly suggest, truly be underpinning the capacity of people to more decisively shape their own political and economic futures but we have seen more sinister outcomesfrom greater information access.
Despite the cautions, these are heady days for those who have argued for years that it is people who can do most to change their own realities and that the current development preoccupation of concentrating so many resources on the state is simply insufficient and in peril of becoming an unbalanced strategy. Changing access to media, information and communication was always going to redefine how change takes place. It is not clear how well set up development organisations are to adapt to such change.
One prediction might be worth making. This is the era of direct, unmediated communication, including (increasingly) unmediated South North communication. Many civil society organisations focus on representing the voices of the marginalised to Northern or international publics. This role may shift from the representational to the catalytic and connective. Young people in the South connecting directly to their peers in the West through facebook, creating new online identities. We may see this most powerfully around issues like climate change, where the accountability relationship of the West (historically most responsible) to South (most affected) is the starkest and least ambiguous.
The eastward shift of communicative power is less clear cut and may not win out against the more powerful downward shifts. The impact of China’s $8 billion investment in its international broadcast services will take time to materialise, but as a statement of intent it is astonishing. Its investment in CNC World (24 hour English News channel), CCTV (which alone is receiving $2.2 billion), Xinhua and its decision to invest in Arabic, French and Spanish) appears part of a clear, determined soft power strategy, accompanied by multiple other cultural exports (such as the global proliferation of Confucius Institutes). Countries who have traditionally had preeminent soft power assets (such as the UK) are disinvesting in them because of economic crisis, the major cuts affecting the BBC World Service being the most significant of these. The communicative element is, of course, just one component of a much larger shift in global power balances reflecting economic crisis in the West and the growing vigour and self confidence in the East. The likelihood of communicative power leaching from West to East inevitably increases the capacity of China and others to shape international norms in their image. For development organisations and especially the governmentally controlled UN, such shifts suggest that communication strategies should increasingly reach beyond the traditional international media partners of the New York Times and BBC to embrace Xinhua and other non western actors.
Until two months ago, a prediction might have been made that the prospects for advancing democracy, freedom of expression and other human rights might struggle in this environment. BRICS countries have been sceptical of international organisations – especially the UN – having a mandate to promote what they consider Western agendas (and the associated accusations of double standards) within their countries. That too has changed. A wave of new governments across the Middle East may be about to come to power born from a collective assertion of human rights of which freedom of expression is the most sacrosanct.
Over recent years the world has been plunged not only into economic recession but also what Larry Diamond, editor of the Journal of Democracy, called just over two years ago the democratic recession. Suddenly we are in a new era of democratic resurgence, a resurgence rooted in the social, political and economic dynamics of the countries concerned rather than an emulation of the West. This does not feel like a set of revolutions who will take their inspiration from either West or East, but from their own original brand of democratic renewal enabled, centrally, by new found communicative power.
If so much communicative power is shifting downwards, Southwards and Eastwards, what then of the West? That too is a mugs game, but I can say that working for an organisation rooted definitively in the Western tradition, it is as much an exhilarating as challenging time. The work of the BBC World Service Trust is rooted in a belief that media and communication has the transformative potential to advance social, economic and democratic progress. To see that happening in such extraordinary ways is breathtakingly exciting. Some of our work will become less and some more relevant to the 21st century than it has ever done in the past. Organisations like ours will – like the BBC to which we are closely affiliated - continue to have an extremely important role in the future but the self confidence underpinning that role will be derived from a clear recognition of how communicative power in the world is changing. Such directions provide far more opportunities than threats to those whose traditions are rooted in making information and communicative opportunity as widely accessible and available as possible. We live in difficult and thrilling times.