Technology and Revolution

With civil unrest taking place in virtually every North African country, along with many countries in the Middle East, it’s interesting to consider how many of these uprisings wouldn’t have been possible without the innovative use of digitally networked technology. While the use of Social Networks is hot on the lips of every news anchor, many of these were quite effectively deployed in the 2008 post-election crisis in Kenya.

In a 2008 paper released by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich examine how network communication technology was used to promote democracy and transparency, but also how it was quite effective in spreading terror and promoting ethnic violence:

On January 1, 2008, Kenyans started to receive frightening text messages that urged readers to express their frustrations with the election outcome by attacking other ethnic groups. One such message reads, “Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future…we must deal with them in a way they understand…violence.”

It’s easy to think of the good that comes from technology. Nicholas Negropante, the founder of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), in the conclusion of his submission to a Boston Review online forum on technology and poverty stated:

[New technologies] hold both the promise of education and an end to isolation. And they hold the promise of a world in which the excuses of ignorance and misunderstanding are no longer acceptable, of a future generation that is more tolerant, more just, and more peaceful than our own.

It’s important for some people to have this sort of optimistic view, even if I disagree with the OLPC program, but we must not be naïve to the dangers new methods of communication technology present. The more digitally inter-connected a country is, and the more overall knowledge in the usage of social networks and other online services (blogs, forums, twitter) the people have, then there is a greater chance that the sort of uprising we’re seeing will take place.

This Christian Science Monitor article points out reasons why the Democratic Republic of the Congo will not have this sort of uprising, and chief among them is that is the connectedness of the people.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 21 percent of Egypt’s population has access to the internet and 5 percent are on Facebook; in the Congo, the corresponding figures are 0.5 percent and 0.1 percent.

From my own experience here, those who have had a Facebook account created for them by a westerner hardly understand how to use the system and don’t really see the purpose. And in a place where an internet connection costs a minimum of $250 per month, and the per capita GDP is around $170, it’s not hard to see why only 0.5 percent of the population has access to the internet.

If the civil uprisings did spread into Sub-Saharan Africa, I fear that we would see more ethnic violence in line with what happened in Kenya, or resumption of the brutal civil wars in the DRC. Plus, the police and military are far less trained and organized in countries like the DRC, which could lead to much more acts of violence.


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