Much like Tunisia’s despised former dictator, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, the caddish but likeable Prince Harry was unsuspecting prey in a cell-phone snap that quickly got posted on line. His was a foolish caper in his Las Vegas hotel suite. In Ben Ali’s case it was the dreadful images of a fruit vendor who set himself afire in a final act of despair – after being struck and ordered to pack up his fruit stall by a policewoman – that sent thousands of Tunisians into the streets to depose him. Thus began the Arab Spring.
Both events, one deeply tragic, the other silly and humorous – except to the Queen and Buckingham Palace – are illustrative of the seismic shift in the way the human race interacts as people tweet, twitter, and snap their way across the GSM universe.
All-in-one mobile devices have a versatility and affordability that would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. As the price of these gadgets continues to fall and cell phone towers spring up everywhere, including throughout the developing world, even the world’s poorest citizens are no longer social and political pariahs.
The upside of this new technology is, of course, unrivalled prospects for social interaction and commerce. The widespread availability of cellphones, along with access to primary education and the construction of roads, is a proven driver of economic development. It can also help topple dictators by revealing their dastardly crimes. The downside is a new social and political anarchy that is fast coming upon us.
Some years ago one of America’s most influential thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, coined the phrase “the Great Awakening” to describe the impact modern communications, notably the Internet, is having in mobilizing citizens everywhere to take greater control over their lives and political destiny. But Brzezinski also cautioned that one of the consequences of this revolution would be the erosion of political authority and order and not just for authoritarian regimes but also democracies. He predicted that leaders would have greater difficulty staying in power and governing as bloggers, rumor-mongers, and extremists of every political stripe and persuasion take to the internet to challenge them and the voices of moderation and reason are drowned out by extremists. Brzezinski darkly observed that in today’s world it is easier to kill a million people than it is to control them. (Alas, that is the deadly conclusion to which a ruthless despot, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, may have already come.)
It is not just the challenge to political authority that comes with “the Great Awakening” that is revolutionizing the modern age. It also the capacity of this technology to rent societies apart and stoke the fires of extremism and violence. As reported last week in the Globe and Mail, sectarian violence between the Bodo community and Bengali-speaking Muslims in India’s state of Assam this past July were followed by a series of rumors in tweets, text messages, and Facebook postings prompting a sudden and massive flight of Muslims working in India’s southern provinces to their homes in north as they feared for their lives. India’s railway stations were overwhelmed by this mass exodus. To squash the rumors and control the chaos, the Indian government tried to shut down the offending sites on the Internet, but then confronted its own political backlash over censorship.
In the unruly democracies of the developing world, like India, or those countries that are still shaky and in transition, smart phone and internet-based technologies may easily be abused to exploit interethnic fears and grievances with terrible consequences.
There is a new anarchy that comes with the unfiltered stream of messaging in e-world. It is not simply the famous who have to worry about their indiscretions and peccadilloes being posted online to create a planet-sized keyhole for the voyeurs among us. It is the violence and chaos that can be unleashed by a malevolent text or tweet in already deeply divided societies.