Monday, February 7, 2011
As the second decade of the 21st century begins, what may be the beginning of a raging fire of social change sweeps across nation after nation in the middle east, an ancient and fiercely traditional part of the world. A place where change is almost unknown, and autocratic government is the norm.
As is usually the case in the west, we were all astonished to see the young, angry masses taking to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. We don't expect revolution in such lands. Now that it's begun, some welcome it as hope for change and eventual democratization in a region where dissent and free thought have been suppressed by military, authoritarian and clerical rule for so long. Others fear it as the beginning of a still more repressive form of society that may become a breeding ground for terrorism and regional war. Only time will tell. But, if one dictatorship can be overthrown, why not another and another? The important thing is that a spontaneous explosion of dissent among an oppressed, young and restless population happened, seemingly in the blink of an eye. A very basic, very human form of minimum critical mass, triggering a chain reaction that hasn't stopped yet.
So, what happened? It started in Tunisia, with one young man who, in the course of rebelling against a simple injustice, a blow to his dignity, committed the ultimate act of defiance: He set himself on fire. The news of it, the potency of the image, the young martyr's pain, the event itself spread as fast as the flames. Because, of course, we live in the age of cyberspace. A medium that links the youngest children across oceans. Nothing happens in this world that is hidden from the eyes of the people, especially the young, and there is nothing that a tyrant fears more than the light of day. That's why the tyrants of this world would love to control cyber space. The Red Chinese try to, but only with limited success. The Egyptian regime tried to pull the plug on the whole Internet when dissent broke out in their country, but the simplest cable connection foiled that attempt.
Some say communication is the beginning of civilization. And, some say revolution is the first step toward all forms of real progress. One always fuels the other. The communication networks of today were science fiction a generation ago. Some say the progress of the last generation has been limited to instantaneous communication, while social progress has lagged behind. But, recent events remind us starkly that what happens in the real world enters cyber space and emerges a billion times stronger. Enter the right combination of human energies, bright and dark, and the explosion that may result may shake the world.
Technology only serves the tyrant when it is controlled by the chosen few. Once it is everywhere, linking people the world over, it sets the people free. Whether these revolutions lead to good or ill, we may be witnessing a moment in history in which the people glimpsed the light of a power they had within themselves the whole time and never knew. Like the first humans to see the spark ignite the fire, this could be the beginning of a bright new age.