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How Internet Citizenry Will Decide the Fate of Nations

The head of Google Ideas says technology will rewrite the relationship between citizens and governments.
November 16, 2011

If anyone foresaw the technologically enabled political tsunami dubbed that Arab spring, it was Jared Cohen, now head of Google’s think tank Google Ideas, and previously of the U.S. state department.

In 2004 he witnessed strange crowds of silent young people assembled in the marketplace of the city of Shiraz in southern Iran. They were studiously ignoring one another and intent on their cell phones. Cohen soon found out that they had assembled in an attempt to reinvent the Internet in a place where Internet use was seriously limited by the government. The crowd were using short range Bluetooth connections to communicate with strangers in ways that in other places would involve the Web: searching for a bassist for a band, promoting club nights or selling personal goods. When Cohen asked members of this peer-to-peer human Web if they were worried about being caught, they laughed. No one over thirty understands this is even possible, they said.

That gave Cohen a moment of premonition about the fate of repressive governments in the middle east, he told the Techonomy conference in Tucson, Arizona, yesterday. “These people are using technology to do things they’re not allowed to do,” he said, “they’re self training in activism and one day this will help them organize for something else that is illegal and that they’re not allowed to do.”

When he told colleagues at the State Department, no one was interested. It must have been very tempting for Cohen to say “I told you so” in 2009 when cell phones and the Internet facilitated protests in Iran after contentious elections, and in 2010 when more extensive, tech-enabled activism rewrote the political map for the whole region.

Bluetooth networking like that seen by Cohen in 2004 was what first disseminated the famous video of protestor Neda Agha-Soltan being shot in Iran, until it reached someone who was able to upload it to YouTube. Events this year in Egypt were aided by the same technology, as well as international rabble rousing via Facebook and Twitter. Moves to restrict technology use–as when Egypt’s Mubarak disabled cell phone networks and the Internet–only served to accelerate what was happening, and to draw in people who were previously uninterested but enraged to be denied access to the Web.

Cohen believes that those events provide a preview of how technology will fundamentally shift the balance of power between citizens and governments. “Governments are used to having a fixed number of citizens,” he said, “but now people have multiple identities online. For every physical citizen there’s a virtual entourage that comes with it, and virtual transnational meddlers as well.”

States will retain near absolute power in the physical realm, but lack it in virtual space where citizens rule, says Cohen. “We’re in the midst of a noisy transition,” he said, “in the future we will have a compromise, we’ll see the emergence of a global social contract between the citizens and their system and the states and their system.”

The Internet isn’t known for generating cohesive, permanent political movements, though, which may cause problems for both governments and citizens. The former will find themselves struggling to judge which online movements are significant enough to merit response, and over reaction could trigger more serious activism. Citizens are at risk of the downside of the freewheeling, non-hierarchical protest the technology enables. “For citizens, revolutions will be easier to start but just as hard to finish,” said Cohen, “technology doesn’t create democratic leaders and institutions, it means that you can mobilize without a plan.”

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