Color Revolutions Compared

by tom on July 8, 2009

As those who know me are well aware I am very engaged in thinking about the role of communications technology in society on all scales. My mind has turned most recently though to the events in Moldova, Iran, and now Urumqi all of which have reminded me of two conversations I had several years ago. One concerned the technology those involved in the Velvet revolution in Prague relied upon the other a similar conversation about the election that voted out the Uruguayan junta in the 1984.

I had the good fortune in 1992 to be working in Prague and ended up in a meeting where I was representing the Future of Europe Trust in a meeting with a quiet young guy about a training program for aspiring politicians that were were the rage at the time. The person whose name I forget was held in high esteem and I struggled to understand why as he seemed incredibly introverted and not really a mover and a shaker. It turned out the respect for him came from his role as a key link dispatching students in 1989 from Prague to cities around the then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to act as carrier pigeons relaying the latest news and sustaining the momentum for change around the country.

The second discussion I’m reminded of concerned the way in which people (according to the account I heard) encouraged each other to vote the Uruguayan junta out of power. Apparently on the day of the election many (perhaps only a few – I don’t claim to be a historian of these events) of those opposed to the junta agreed to turn on their car windscreen wipers come rain or shine as a signal, much like a someone wagging their finger “no”. By all accounts there was no rain that day but still people used their windscreen wipers and to the surprise of some  (at least the activists I met) the junta were voted out.

I won’t claim that these low-tech modes of communication were decisive, and in the case of the Velvet Revolution, a case I know a little about, there was certainly a ripeness and readiness for change, but it is interesting to note that in both cases it would have been impossible for either regime to stop such communication even if they had wanted. (In the CSSR you couldn’t stop every student from going home to their family. And what sort of regime makes it illegal to turn on windscreen wipers?)

The same is not the case for today’s high tech communications. In a world where these modern tools rely on state run network operators engineered with choke points through which all mail can be surveilled seem to me to be much more susceptible to control.  The very tools that significantly lower the barrier to starting a demonstration make it easier for it to be discovered and constrain the movement when they are switched off.  That’s not to say that a world where TOR servers, PGP encryption are deployed and peer to peer mesh networks won’t get round a lot of these constraints, but right now I have doubts that protesters of today will be nearly as successful as the introvert from Prague or those radical windscreen wiper users in Uruguay of the past.

This leaves us with a conundrum – a world where movements arise more frequently, with governments whose drive to survive will likely result in more oppression unless they can learn how to engage these (as Mark Pesce described in his recent talk at the Personal Democracy Forum) “adhocracies.”  Others might call them movements or network. I prefer the term communities.  In short, if people can collaborate on YouTube as Mike Wesch at PDF articulated so well those involved in government and governance are facing a much changed information space. A space that suggests a need to transform the way governments deal with information.

Fortunately for me, the new administration is taking bold steps around opening up streams of data for domestic audiences to analyze, and engaging foreign audiences, sometimes even requesting questions via SMS.  Let’s hope other countries make the same analysis and start engaging their citizens in similar ways.

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TedNo Gravatar July 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm

I find the idea that social activities that can not be stopped to be the best simple messaging system a hard one to resist.
There are however a few caveats that I would add before I pushed the argument too far.

1.) Regimes have ways of channeling and repressing dissent without the internet. My East European story, one that I learned about while living in what was the old East Berlin in 1994, was that the regime channeled the entire artistic/opposition scene into the entire country into East Berlin. It made for a lively place, but one that was heavily infiltrated by the Stasi (the East German secret police.

2.) What is the technology itself doing? The simple messaging that you were describing was one way interaction of a straight-forward activity. The massive twittersphere and related ICT effect on the Iranian regime was to both play alterntive media, when the MSM was shut down, and to express international solidarity. These in the the short-term did not effect the outcome, but they changed the overall terrain–what you call the information space.
As to the immediate outcomes, this is always going to be a tactical game between movements and authorities, and who wins and loses in each skirmish will be hard to predict—and it often depends more on the larger political forces at play than it does on who is better at the ICT games.

3.) What can a government shut down without losing face / damaging commerce? If you are Burma, it is pretty much clear that you can shut down almost everything. But in places like Iran, with its lively blogosphere, and China, with its strong desire to be a part of the world and the world market, there is a point where repression is more costly than it is worth.

3.) There comes a point at which these technologies become so interwoven that they are not all that different from students returning home and people using their windshield wipers. Imagine the U.S. government trying to shut down cell phone service–like the Berlin police did by cutting off subway service during a demonstration in the 1990s–and you can see that there is a point where these repressive practices become unthinkable.

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