Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/3/2011 (3532 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The events in Tunisia and Egypt, and now Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, demonstrate the resurgence of oral culture and the power of social narrative in the digital age. Fuelled by cellphone video and Internet access, and abetted by Facebook and Twitter, social narratives are changing the nature of global society. In countries where illiteracy makes the spread of conventional liberal ideas impossible, tweets do what books could not.
Create the story where the dictator's government is evil and corrupt, and where the desired outcome is the overthrow of tyranny and the celebration of freedom. Spread such a narrative by word of mouth as much as by electronic means, and the flash mob for freedom becomes both virtual and real.
Digital communication in the 21st century allows ideas to spread at the speed of light, unconstrained by the conventions and barriers inherent in literate culture. Sights, sounds and images unfold in the palm of the receiver's hand regardless of whether he (or she) has any education, the right social background, or an understanding of the politics involved.
In past attempts at revolution, rebels would seize the television and radio stations, as well as the telephone exchange, to gain control of the story that the population would hear. Control of these physical locations was a force multiplier. The population would doubt the strength of the government forces and exaggerate the rebels' momentum.
Today, there is no such central communication structure. The individual uploader is the centre of the communications web. Propaganda broadcasts are instantly discounted by the images from any cellphone camera, sent worldwide by satellite even when governments attempt to disable Internet and telephone access.
The flash mob for freedom is not constrained by past methods of controlling political unrest. It can't be stopped by arresting the leaders, because there are none. It may be stopped by killing the protesters, but the spontaneous spread of that violent story will generate more participation, not less. Where the police and armed forces are drawn from the population, if they shoot their friends and family at all, it will be under duress and not for long. Popular uprising will quickly turn into military revolt.
Even should the protesters be attacked by elite troops or foreign mercenaries, this will not be enough to restore the country to its previous condition. No country on the planet has sufficient means to coerce the long-term co-operation of the population. Government, even in the most despotic of nations, requires the acquiescence of the people.
If the popular desire for freedom and democracy has grown more in the last month than after years of more deliberate efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it comes at a price.
Oral culture can create and spread a social narrative only if it is a simple, moral tale. Such social narratives lack nuance, because nuance can lead to confusion as the story spreads. The audience can be told that the government is bad, but the reasons tend initially to be vague. Evidence of the story of tyranny needs to be descriptive, the story needs illustrations, and so it is only when the truncheons fall or the first shots are fired that the evidence speaks for itself.
It is not a surprise that the flash mobs for freedom have appeared in countries with low literacy rates, large numbers of young people, and poor economic conditions. While mobs tend not to listen very well to their leaders, ideology of all kinds still requires reason effectively to persuade or indoctrinate its followers. Modern telecommunications devices, however, allow the young and illiterate to leapfrog their educational disabilities into 21st century political discourse, just as cellphones allow societies without the money to develop telephone systems to leapfrog into the 21st century economy.
Instead of political debate, we find moral narrative. Instead of reason, we find emotion. These flash mobs for freedom do not reflect an understanding of how democracy might work in their countries. They reflect a belief that democracy is good and that anything else is bad. They are anti-government, not for the reasons those outside the flash mob could easily enumerate and explain, but because that is the nature of the moral tale.
Keep the story simple, give the social narrative a moral dimension with good guys and bad guys, and what the story means and what the receiver should do in response is easily and effectively communicated. The danger, of course, is that while the story may be strong enough to overthrow a government, it is not sophisticated enough to replace it.
Governments ignore such a moral story at their peril, but their response must reshape the narrative and not simply try to bury it. The only way to change an oral culture is through education, focused on the thinking and development of individual citizens instead being driven by the emotional spontaneity of the mob.
It is an irony of the 21st century that education and literacy, previously seen as tools of cultural revolution, might instead turn out to be socially conservative. They are the only effective defence against the chaos of an oral culture driven by instant stories and spontaneous popular reactions. Encouraging all the people to think may seem like a dangerous gambit to an older generation accustomed to authority and control, but the risks of government by flash mob are much more frightening and immediate.
Peter H. Denton teaches ethics at Red River College and is associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.