Protest Infatuation and the 4th Wave of Democratization

Along with David Brooks, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Jad Abumrad, Kurt Anderson belongs to my select fraternity of idealized, intellectual American man-crush. So I was kinda, well, crushed when I read his cover story for this year’s Time Person of the Year. Like the rest of mainstream media’s coverage of social change in 2011, Anderson had little more to offer than 7,000 words of blanket infatuation for the telegenic, rock-slinging protesters without any critical analysis of what has actually changed, and what it means for the future.

He begins and ends the essay with references to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 The End of History, which argues that the “third wave of democracy” (from the late 1960′s on) represents the final wave of democratization.

Then Anderson compares the wave of 2011 global protests to 1848:

It was, in other words, unlike anything in any of our lifetimes, probably unlike any year since 1848, when one street protest in Paris blossomed into a three-day revolution that turned a monarchy into a republican democracy and then — within weeks, thanks in part to new technologies (telegraphy, railroads, rotary printing presses) — inspired an unstoppable cascade of protest and insurrection in Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Venice and dozens of other places across Europe

He is seemingly suggesting that the 2011 protests represent more than the “countercultural pageant” of 1968; that they are actually the beginning of the fourth wave of democratization. The continuation, as it were, of history.

All year the media (new and old) have obsessed over protest, prancing from one social media-fueled wave of anger to the next. As soon as a new angry mob emerges, all former protests are left in the abyss of the forgotten. In his essay for Time magazine, Anderson had the opportunity to look back over the dozens of major protest movements around the globe this year and ask the one crucial question that no one else seems interested in: Where are they now?

But he doesn’t and few have. So I offer this essay, which first appeared in Digital AlterNatives, as an attempt to both complicate and clarify how we understand the roles of technology, social networks, and social activism in democratization.

I do believe that, after twenty years of “democratic slumber,” we are indeed entering a “4th wave of democratization.” But the 2011 protests are merely a symptom of the disease; not a diagnosis and certainly not the cure. To improve democracy we need the smartest young activists to be working in government, not out on the streets protesting against it. We need more of the types of projects described by Micah Sifry in WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency. We need more citizens educating Congress, not just criticizing it.

2011 was the year of protest. But I will be working all year to make 2012 the year of open government.

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Armed with cell phones and Facebook accounts, the digital natives of today are fomenting revolution and redefining citizenship. Or at least so go the breathless declarations found on Twitter, magazine covers, and the nightly news. But such proclamations lack a contextual analysis that considers the social, environmental, economic, political, and technological factors that have recently incited youth and opposition groups to mobilize around the world. Opinion makers depend on buzz words like “digital natives” without explaining which characteristics distinguish today’s youth from their parents’ generation. Academics and public intellectuals, meanwhile, have focused on the influence of social media in so-called “Facebook revolutions,” but have largely ignored the role of technology in post-revolutionary politics.

This essay questions several popular notions around the use of technology by young activists. First it challenges the terminology of “digital natives,” arguing that such neologisms contribute to a psychological barrier which impedes wider adoption of digital literacy. In order to contrast and better understand the significance of today’s protest movements, it then documents the multiple factors behind the youth-led protests of 1968. A brief account of my own personal appropriation of new technologies throughout my youth aspires to offer older readers a clearer understanding of the impact of growing up connected by computers. The essay concludes by zeroing in on the social media-fueled protest movements of 2011, which have prioritized the removal of the current political class without offering a concrete vision of what ought to come next. Ultimately I argue that, while it is easier to build large coalitions around movements that seek to overthrow the establishment, such “anti-power” activism must be accompanied by a clear vision of how to construct a networked democracy that features transparency, accountability, and civic participation.

This Revolution is for Display Purposes Only

Will future historians treat 2011 as the Internet generation’s 1968?

Deconstructing Digital Nativism

New technologies give new meanings to established words; and those words, in turn, influence how we understand the social significance of each new technology. “Current,” for example, which previously described the flow of water, was later applied to the discovery of electricity. The telegraph gave new meanings to familiar terms like “send” and “message.” An 1873 issue of Harper’s Magazine recounts the frustrations of an angry customer who paid good money to “send” a telegram only to see the operator later hang his handwritten note on a hook. An entire generation had to learn to detach the concept of message from the physical object of paper.

Today it has become standard to speak about the comprehension and appropriation of Internet tools and technologies in terms of digital natives and digital immigrants. We have recycled a vocabulary rooted in the exclusionary nature of nationalism to describe a perceived generational divide in how individuals respond to and appropriate new technologies. I suggest that rather than viewing technological appropriation in terms of nativism and immigration, we think in terms of literacy. From the Latin littera, or “letter of the alphabet,” literacy speaks of our ability to understand and communicate effectively, to transmit knowledge and culture. The all-encompassing term “digital native” is often a lazy shorthand that represents distinct and diverse types of digital literacies.

Our ability to communicate – Unlike our parents, who recall sitting down at a desk to deliberately draft a letter with paper, pen, envelope and stamp, today’s youth have radically expanded options in how we communicate our observations, reflections and emotions. Oral and written communication have merged into a constant flow of commentary that tends to incentivize wit, irony and novelty. Of greatest significance, online communication is often many-to-many rather than one-to-one, an adjustment that has proven difficult for older generations.

Our ability to search for information – A woman in her mid-fifties once told me of a recurring childhood fantasy while she grew up in rural Venezuela. She frequently walked through the countryside, imagining supernatural glasses that provided her with extra information about anything she set her eyes on. Today, a self-described iPhone addict, she says the Internet has become those magical glasses. Modern youth take for granted our ability to search for any type of information — song lyrics, actors, politicians, Facebook profiles — at any time. But we should be careful to not conflate potential with reality; a 2010 study by Eszter Hargitttai and her colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago found important limitations in how youth seek and evaluate online information.

Our ability to network – “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” goes the only business school cliché. Today’s youth are intuitively, if not explicitly, aware of the importance of social capital to open up economic and social opportunities. Whereas our parents may have joined a social club, cooking class, or sports league to increase their social capital, today we are often more likely to search out similar interactions through the use of online spaces geared toward particular lifestyles, sub-cultures and interests. As social interactions with strangers begin online rather than offline, they become more numerous, more fleeting, and yet, paradoxically, more persistent as each person from our past remains just a search away.

Our ability to absorb knowledge – Information anxiety has become part of the human experience. As the amount of information made accessible grows exponentially, the percentage of available information we are able to process necessarily declines. I believe that all generations are struggling as we move from a world of relative “information scarcity” to “information abundance.” But youth are especially aware of the need to develop strategies and coping mechanisms to survive in a world with more information than any one person could come close to comprehending.

Our ability to create social change – For the purposes of this book, I am particularly interested in a final digital literacy: our ability to shape meaning out of information, and social change out of meaning. To better understand the evolution of how we change the world around us, we must look more closely at the social movements of our parents, and of today.

The Youth of 1968

On New Year’s Eve, 1967 French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the nation, “‘I greet the year 1968 with serenity. It is impossible to see how France today could be paralyzed by crisis as she has been in the past.” Little did he know what was yet to come. “There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely there will ever be again,” writes Mark Kurlansky in his comprehensive book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World.

Less than 25 years earlier, World War II concluded with over 50 million dead, including an unprecedented number of civilians. Those who survived returned to their countries, cities and towns to experience the greatest period of economic growth since the peak of the Industrial Revolution. After World War II, much of the world experienced a surge in births and housing. In the West, liberal theories of childrearing gained currency. Public and higher education expanded like never before, as did corporations, chain stores, and mass marketing. Most importantly, this was the first generation to grow up with television, which had two profound, paradoxical effects: alienation and solidarity.

Alienation, Solidarity and Protest

In 1967 Guy Debord published his influential book Society of the Spectacle, which became one of many catalysts for the student-led protests in Paris the following year. For Debord, increasing corporatization combined with the alluring power of mass media and slick marketing engendered a consumer culture in which our social interactions are mediated by the products we buy. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he wrote. Mexican intellectual Octavio Paz argued that reality was beginning to imitate television more than television imitated reality. Alienation, the estrangement from a sense of community and meaning, was the key word that kept appearing in essays and on the walls. A 1968 poster hanging outside of Paris’ Sorbonne University warned:

The revolution which is beginning will call into question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer society is bound for a violent death. Social alienation must vanish from history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power.

While broadcast television was largely responsible for the “mere representation” of “all that was once directly lived,” it was also the medium through which youth would learn to attract attention to their causes and inform themselves about the latest protests by like-minded peers around the world. Television, it can be argued, created a generation that was more self-aware and more globally united than ever before.

TV screens flashed images of major protests in communist, capitalist, and non-aligned countries throughout 1968. In the United States, the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, Black Power, and anti-war movements were all at their peak. In Spain, students at the University of Madrid protested against the Franco regime and the presence of police on their campus. In Poland, 300 student protesters at the University of Warsaw were beaten by state-sponsored thugs and over a thousand were later jailed. Massive protests erupted in then-Yugoslavia on July 2, 1968 where Belgrade University students participated in a week-long hunger strike and handed out copies of the banned magazine, Student. In Brazil, Military Police killed a protesting teenager, which led to the country’s first major protests against the military dictatorship. The University of Rome was shut down for two weeks following student protests against police violence. Over 10,000 students protested the Vietnam War in West Berlin. The Prague Spring brought Martin Luther King-inspired non-violence to Czechoslovakia, as tens of thousands protested against the impending invasion of Soviet forces. A 21-year-old Czech student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest against the suppression of free speech. In South Africa, protests erupted at Cape Town University when administrators withdrew an employment offer to a black professor. Japanese students protested against the presence of US troops in their country. In New York, Columbia University students took three school officials hostage in protest of allegedly racist school policies, while in Chicago thousands of anti-war protesters disrupted the Democratic National Convention. In Mexico City, an escalating series of conflicts between the police and student demonstrators eventually led to a violent crackdown in Tlatelolco Plaza, which killed up to one hundred protesters and observers just weeks before the 1968 Summer Olympics. The following month Pakistani students launched a nation-wide campaign against an ordinance which empowered the military dictatorship to withdraw the degree of any student.

But the protest movement that is most emblematic of 1968 began in January at Paris’ Nanterre University, a recent suburban extension of the Sorbonne that was based on the American model of an enclosed campus, rather than the traditional French universities, which were smaller and integrated into the city layout. In many ways, the corporate efficiency of the university campus and the suburban isolation of the students was representative of the social alienation documented by Debord the previous year. On January 26 administration officials called in the French riot police to quell a small demonstration against the lack of student facilities. Soon the student protest joined the anti-war movement, and by May 6 the French government unsuccessfully attempted to ban all public demonstrations. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German exchange student who was one of the original leaders of the small protest at Nanterre, was christened ‘Danny the Red’ by the media (as much for the color of his hair as his politics), and became the unofficial, charismatic leader of the movement. “The catalyst for his fame,” writes journalist Sean O’Hagen, “was television.”

In 1968 two technological innovations transformed the nightly news reports: the use of videotape, which was cheap and reusable, instead of film, and the same-day broadcast, which meant that often unedited images of rebellion were disseminated across continents almost as they happened. Student protesters in Berkeley and Columbia cheered their TV sets as footage from the Paris barricades made the American news in May, while French students took heart from images of the huge anti-war demonstrations now occurring across Europe and America.

‘We met through television,’ Cohn-Bendit later said of his counterparts in other countries. ‘We were the first television generation.’ Indeed, the radicals had a much better grasp of the galvanizing power of television than the politicians they were trying to overthrow. ‘A modern revolutionary group headed for the television, not for the factory,’ quipped the late Abbie Hoffman, one of the great political pranksters of 1968, who helped provoke a bloody battle between anti-war protesters and the Chicago police force at the Chicago Democratic convention. As the police attacked them, the protesters chanted: ‘The whole world is watching!’ And, for the first time, it was.

While the causes and context behind each protest were unique, a shared spirit of revolution was communicated across television. “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” ran one slogan in Paris that was later echoed by youth in other countries. Psychologists like Eric Erikson argued that youth were merely searching for a unique identity, which caused them to rebel against the values and mores of their parents. But the youth themselves decried social alienation, the sense that they were purposefully isolated from the forces that would determine their individual and collective futures.

1968 in Hindsight

In hindsight, and in balance, the protest movements of 1968 were largely failures. Significant civil rights advances were made in the United States, but the Franco regime continued in Spain, as did Brazil’s military dictatorship. The demands of Mexican students were never met and justice was never brought to those responsible for the massacre. The Mexican student movement would later dissolve in fear of the increasingly oppressive government. By August, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and remained until 1989. The temporary, weak alliance between the French labor and youth movements fell apart before the onset of winter. The Vietnam war continued, Apartheid in South Africa continued, Charles De Gaulle remained in power, and neither the capitalist, industrialist, nor consumer societies were overthrown. If anything, they expanded enormously over the following decades as most of the 1968 protesters eventually settled down with office jobs, families of four, and homes in the suburbs. Richard Nixon won the 1968 US presidential election, a wave of violent military dictatorships took over Latin America, and by 1982 conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed, “We are reaping what was sown in the sixties… fashionable theories and permissive clap-trap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and restraint were denigrated.”

On the other hand, the Women’s Liberation movement turned out to be one of the most influential and enduring. The global environmental movement was also born out of the late sixties. Cohn-Bendit is now a Green Party leader in the European parliament, and is referred to by the media as “Danny the Green” rather than “Danny the Red.” Tom Hayden, who was charged with conspiracy to cause violence in Chicago for his role in the protest against the National Democratic Convention, later became a California state congressman for 18 years, advocating for progressive environmental, labor, and foreign policies.

1968 was a collective catharsis, not a social revolution. But in the decades that followed, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and sovereign rights all expanded thanks to the enormous growth of higher education, and the sustained advocacy of civil society.

Growing Up With a Gameboy

I was born in 1980, two years before Margaret Thatcher claimed that we were reaping what was sown in the Sixties. I was nine years old when crowds of East and West Germans chipped away at the Berlin wall, greeting each other with celebratory hugs. My parents let me stay up late into the night with a bowl of ice cream to witness the historic moment. The same year my father brought home our first computer, a Macintosh SE. Apple’s first attempt at a fully enclosed, appliance-like desktop computer, the SE had a 20 megabyte hard drive, one megabyte of RAM, and an 8 megahertz processor. In comparison, the cell phone in my pocket has a 32,000 megabyte hard drive, 512 megabytes of RAM, and a 1,000 megahertz processor.

As a child I would turn on the magical, new machine, head to the kitchen to make toast, and then return before the operating system was fully booted. Mostly I used it to play games, but the computer came bundled with a program called HyperCard, which was based on Ted Nelson’s theories of hypertext and hypermedia — forms of inter-linked, multimedia content that could not be represented on paper; to print it out was to lose its meaning. The most famous and lasting version of hypertext is the HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, which was developed in 1989, the same year that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the violent suppression of pro-democracy activists in China. Even as a nine-year-old boy, my early experience with the HyperCard program opened my eyes to the fact that the future of communication would be interactive, linked, and always evolving.

In 1989 the desktop computer was still not a reference source. Having already spent so much money on the Macintosh SE, my parents could not afford the illustrious Encyclopædia Britannica, despite the traveling salesmen’s best efforts. Instead we opted for the more affordable 1988 edition of World Book Encyclopedia. In total, I read around 100 of its nearly 14,000 pages. By the early 1990s most new computers included CD-ROM drives. Unlike traditional floppy disks that stored less than a megabyte of information, compact discs stored nearly 700 megabytes. In 1993 Microsoft took advantage of this expansion of portable memory and released its Encarta digital encyclopedia with nearly 50,000 unique entries, hundreds of images, a world atlas, and a comprehensive dictionary. Never before had so much knowledge taken up so little physical space. Throughout high school Microsoft Encarta became the go-to reference source for nearly every homework assignment. I quickly became accustomed to a startling new reality; the answer to my every question was just a quick search away. (In 2009 Microsoft discontinued Encarta; Wikipedia now receives 98% of all visits made to online encyclopedias.)

In the fall of 1996 I signed up for my first Hotmail email account. That same year I signed up for an ICQ instant messaging account, and spent many nights chatting with the same friends I saw every day at school, but also occasionally with complete strangers. Throughout college (1998 – 2002) the Internet was still something of a Wild West. On the one hand, it became more commercial with the launch of eBay, PayPal, Amazon, and thousands of other ventures that eventually burned out during the dot-com bust. On the other hand, many of the laid-off employees began contributing to open source programming languages, software programs, and platforms like PHP, the Firefox browser, and Wikipedia. Programmers began to focus on the development of websites that provide social value rather than sell products.

In 2002 I created my first social networking profile on Friendster. The next year I followed most of my friends to MySpace. By 2005 a regular day would include five or six updates to several different blogs, even more updates to profiles on MySpace and Facebook, a number of Skype voice calls with contacts around the world, and dozens of emails and IM conversations. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt frequently points out, every two years the human species now creates as much information as we did from the dawn of humankind up until 2003. Likewise, a study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that in 2008 the average American consumed 34 gigabytes of information per day, an increase of about 350 percent since 1980.

I offer this personal account to demonstrate how I — and millions like me — grew up with new technologies that inevitably affected how I saw the world, and how I would try to change it.

The Arab Spring and Beyond

In December 2009 I was in Beirut with some of the most active and activist bloggers from across the Middle East and North Africa. The meeting, organized by Tunisian dissident Sami Ben Gharbia — who would later play an instrumental role in the spring 2011 Tunisian uprising — brought influential Arabic-speaking bloggers and activists together to build a regional knowledge and support network. At some point during the discussions I grew restless. For years I had observed hundreds of well-intentioned online projects that strove to consolidate democracy, but I could point to few results. Just two months earlier I was in Kiev, Ukraine where hundreds of thousands of tech savvy youth brought about the so-called Orange Revolution of 2005 only to see it slowly dissipate into the same corruption and political clientelism as before. Back at the meeting in Beirut, I turned to some of my new Egyptian friends and asked them just what they were hoping to accomplish. “Get Mubarak out of power,” they replied in unison. That was their one goal, and they claimed that until it became a reality, it made no sense to focus on any others.

The Year in Protests, So Far

The worldwide protests of 2011 go far beyond what the media have dubbed the ‘Arab Spring.’ In November 2010 students rallied in central London against the government’s increase of school fees. Though the hike in tuition narrowly passed, the protests were seen as largely successful in holding politicians to a far greater level of scrutiny and accountability than they were accustomed to. As the media emphasized, the protests were organized almost completely using online tools.

Just as the UK student protests began to wind down, a new movement was building in Tunisia, where well-organized opposition groups took advantage of escalating protests against youth unemployment and high food prices to ouster long time authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Once again, commentators cited social media as instrumental tools in organizing the protests. Andrew Sullivan and others quickly dubbed it a “Wikileaks Revolution,” ignoring years of on-the-ground constituency-building by groups like Nawaat. The successful movement to ouster Ben Ali inspired similar opposition groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Egyptian protesters were able to force out President Hosni Mubarak in just three weeks — after nearly 30 years of dictatorial rule. Major protest movements also took place — and continue to take place — in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman.

Meanwhile, in Europe, austerity measures provoked the so-called “Desperate Youth” of Portugal and the “May of Facebook” movement in Greece. In nearby Spain tens of thousands of mostly youth protesters camped out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Plaza, demanding their very own “Spanish Revolution.” The movement was rooted in the “Real Democracy Now” online platform, which called for the evolution of political representation to catch up with the pace of technological innovation. The acampadas, or “camps,” of protesters throughout Spain then inspired similar youth protests in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador — all of which were organized on Twitter and Facebook.

The protest fever also spread to Sub-Saharan Africa. Gabonese activists both inside the country and abroad used social media to draw attention to the human rights abuses of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo. In Senegal the Twitter hashtag #ticketwade was used to organize successful protests against a proposed constitutional amendment that would change electoral rules. In Uganda, the government went so far as to request that internet service providers block access to Facebook and Twitter as anti-government protests built-up amid rising food and gas prices.

In Latin America social media have been instrumental in organizing protests against: violence in Mexico, a university tuition hike in Puerto Rico, and a proposed hydro-electric dam in Chile. Even in the United States, long free of traditional protest movements, social media have helped bring together students and unions in opposition to proposed legislation that takes rights away from workers. Tens of thousands of Malaysians organized a “Bersih 2.0” rally to push through electoral reforms. As I write, a streaming video of student protests against the privatization of education in Chile hangs in the background on my desktop. Tech savvy activists taped an iPhone to a balloon and live-streamed the day’s protests to thousands of viewers across the world.

Out of Work, Losing Hope

Just halfway into 2011, the protests of 1968 (“the year that rocked the world”) look minor in comparison. It would be wrong, however, to view today’s protest movements only through the prism of technology. We must also consider social, environmental, political, and economic factors.

A few months before British students began organizing their protest movement on social networks, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization released an extensive report on youth unemployment which warned of a “lost generation” of young people that have given up their search for meaningful work. According to the report, “of some 620 million economically active youth aged 15 to 24 years, 81 million were unemployed at the end of 2009 — the highest number ever.” Not only were they under-employed, but many were “over-educated,” having taken out massive school loans while trusting the advice of their parents and politicians that a university degree was the fast track certificate to financial stability.

In 1968, Western youth reacted to social alienation, a by-product of years of economic and middle class growth. Rapid industrialization created factory and office jobs with decent salaries but often numbing work routines. The suburbanization of residential areas stifled self-expression and induced uniformity. Unlike their grandparents who grew up during the depression, or their parents who grew up during times of war, the youth of 1968 had all of their basic needs (food, shelter, safety) met. But their higher needs (a sense of belonging, esteem, self-actualization) were still wanting. Similarly, the youth of today are also products of extreme, global economic growth. Even taking the 2008 financial crisis into account, the entire global economy still doubled in size from 2000 – 2010. In 2009 The Economist magazine declared that “for the first time in history more than half the world is middle-class.” Furthermore, according to World Bank data, all levels of school enrollment have skyrocketed over the past ten years.

In other words, depending on your definitions and methodologies, a majority of youth across the world are now growing up in middle class homes and attending secondary education. They enter adulthood with greater schooling, skills, and expectations than their parents, but rarely with secure employment. The invention of the automobile created millions of jobs in the 20th century, whereas one of today’s most talked-about companies, Facebook, has just over 1,000 employees. Today’s youth grew up ready to take on the world, but too many are left working in coffee shops and supermarkets. Around the world this phenomenon was quickly adapted by local politicians and pundits. Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Peter Coy offers an assortment of buzzwords:

In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Their counterparts in Egypt, who on Feb. 1 forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won’t seek reelection, are the shabab atileen, unemployed youths. The hittistes and shabab have brothers and sisters across the globe. In Britain, they are NEETs—”not in education, employment, or training.” In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they’re “boomerang” kids who move back home after college because they can’t find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its “ant tribe”—recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.

In Mexico they are called “ninis” — shorthand for “neither studies nor works” — and they have been blamed by pundits for the increase in the country’s violence. One governor even went so far as to propose mandatory military service for all Mexican youth who are not enrolled in school or employed.

They Let Us Down

It is all too easy to assume that unemployed youth are taking to the streets because they have nothing else to do, but such a conclusion ignores some crucial factors. Young people in the United States who “grew up green” were dismayed by Obama’s bailout of the automobile industry, a 20th century technology that will continue to cause environmental harm, but offers few new jobs for young people. Why not invest the $25 billion in research and development to create employment in the renewable energy sector?

Then came the bailout of the financial sector in the United States and Europe. Banks propped up with over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money in 2008 and 2009 went on to reward their irresponsible executives with obscenely large bonuses. The US and EU bailed out private banks with taxpayer money, and then went on to make major cuts in the public sector, including education and social security.

The price of commodities has soared. World food prices have more than doubled since 1990 and Oxfam predicts that the trend will only accelerate over the next 20 years. Higher gas prices raise the cost of daily commutes, winter heating, and summer vacation. But the oil companies are not only taking in record profits; they also receive $4 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies in the United States.

Privatization trends are also igniting protests. The ongoing privatization of education, for example, was behind the major protests in the UK and Chile, as were successive increases in tuition for higher education. Once seen as a right for all, higher education is increasingly a privilege for the wealthy.

Finally, over the past 20 years, the implementation of electoral democracy has expanded significantly from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia to Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. But the symbolic right to vote (think of all those Newsweek covers with a raised purple finger) has expanded at a faster pace than the institutions and characteristics on which real representative democracy depends, such as freedom of press, civic participation, and accountability.

In short, the youth of today have plenty to be fed up about, but, like the youth of 1968, they have mostly been excluded from the powers and policies that will decide their future. Instead, they have taken their activism to the Internet and, increasingly, to the streets.

Anti-Power and Counter-Power

Long before the protests of 2011 began to take shape, an entire pseudo-academic industry emerged in the publishing houses and conference auditoriums of major cities to repeatedly dissect a seemingly simple question: do social media cause social revolutions? On one end of the spectrum, Evgeny Morozov, the very person who popularized the term “Twitter Revolution” in the spring of 2009, went on to publish The Net Delusion, a stinging critique of the use of online tools to foment protest and revolution. On the other end of the spectrum was Andrew Sullivan who seemed to proclaim “the revolution will be Twittered” every time more than 50 people gathered in a public place. Then New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell jumped in the fray to have a go at explaining “why the revolution will not be tweeted.” A week later Turkish professor Zeynep Tufekci penned an extensive takedown of Gladwell’s poorly received article, which one commentator referred to as his “tripping point.” Somewhere in the middle of all this back and forth were Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman who argue that social media are powerful new instruments in the toolbox of activists, but that the success of any movement depends on how those tools — and others — are used by the activists themselves.

Strangely, there was one question that all the pundits seemed equally willing to ignore: what happens after all the protests and revolutions? University of Texas professor Dave Parry eventually declared on his blog that social media have indeed proven effective at stirring up revolution, but then he asked, “are they bad for democracy?” What if social media tools incentivize incessant protest rather than the new forms of civic participation and transparency necessary for a functioning 21st century democracy?

The Egyptian activists I met in Beirut were successful at forcing Mubarak out of power, but what will come next? There are still no signs of a functioning government, or plans for new democratic institutions, and yet many of the same protesters continue to raise their fists in Tahrir Square, though their motivations are murky. A 62-year-old homemaker, passing by the broken bottles and stones from yet another clash between police and youth, asked: “What’s this all for? Commodities are expensive; life isn’t any better. What have these youth and protests done for us?” Writing for Al Jazeera, Esther Dyson expressed her concern that Egyptian youth are not yet aware that running a government is not as easy as “running a Facebook group.”

Again, Dave Parry:

While generally I am a cautious optimist when it comes to the question of does social media enable people to resist and coordinate against oppressive regimes, I am far more skeptical on the question of whether or not social media-powered revolutions yield stability. They might be really good in the short term, but the attributes which make social media powerful in the short term, might also be a hindrance in the long term.

To frame the problem, Parry borrows two concepts from sociologist John Holloway: counter-power and anti-power. Counter-power is an attempt to replace one power structure with another. Most traditional revolutionary conflicts have begun this way, with an opposition movement that attempts to replace the group currently in power. For example, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution sought to replace the government of Viktor Yanukovych with that of Viktor Yushchenko, who was seen by the youth as less corrupt and more modern. Or, reaching back even further, Mao Zedong inspired Chinese peasants to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party. Anti-power, on the other hand, aims not to substitute power structures, but rather to undo the current power structure without any notion of what ought to come next. It is easier to build a coalition around anti-power because the framing of resistance rests solely on what’s wrong, not on what ought to be done. “In the case of Egypt, the movement seems to me more constituted by anti-power — get rid of the current regime; and less around any other institution replacing the existing one,” writes Parry. “The protestors were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear.”

No protest movement of 2011 is more representative of anti-power than the so-called “Spanish Revolution.” “This isn’t a protest against any particular politician or political party,” remarked one protester, “this is a rejection of the entire political class.” In fact, the most commonly cited success of the protest movement is a lack of voter turnout in the May elections.

Spanish discontentment consolidated in 2008 when then-President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero approved a government bailout of the financial sector similar to the bailout approved by his American counterpart, Barack Obama. Soon Spain’s public debt skyrocketed. As journalist Bernardo Gutiérrez recounts, “while unemployment reached record highs in 2010, the 35 largest companies at Madrid’s stock market announced profits of 50 billion euros, 24.5% more than in 2009. Telefónica caused an outcry when the company fired 6,000 workers in Spain while announcing EUR 450 million in bonuses to its executives and 6.9 billion in dividends to its shareholders.” Resentment among Spain’s mostly unemployed youth then turned into outrage when the government passed the highly controversial Internet regulatory legislation known as “Ley Sinde,” which allows for the shutdown of any website without due process. Significantly, Gutiérrez notes that while 92% of Spanish youth are regular Internet users, only 10% of Spanish MPs use Twitter. Networks of activists converged around the online platform “Real Democracy Now!” which called for a massive demonstration against the political class, and for … well, it’s not exactly certain.

If Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was the intellectual fountainhead of 1968, then it is another Frenchman, the 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, whose book Time of Outrage is to be found in the backpacks and iPads of European protesters today. The thin booklet, which calls on readers to get angry about the state of modern society, even topped the Christmas bestseller list in France. Hessel, who was tortured by the Nazis for his resistance during World War II, says that it is time to resist the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” by defending the “values of modern democracy.” But that is essentially where he leaves readers. The French philosopher, Luc Ferry, responded with an open letter in Le Figaro, which admonished Hessel for inciting outrage without offering any constructive suggestions. Indignation, writes Ferry, is a sentiment “that is applied only to others, never to oneself, and real morality starts with demands one makes on oneself.” Prime Minister François Fillon added that “nothing would be less French than apathy and indifference, but indignation for indignation’s sake is not a way of thinking.” In other words, Ferry and Fillon criticize Hessel for encouraging anti-power resistance without offering any constructive proposal.

Some critics say that the rhetoric of Stéphane Hessel and the Spanish Revolution smack of 1968 utopianism, but for Michel Bauwens “the relative indeterminacy of the Spanish movement is not a bug, but a feature.” He even declares that the protest movement in Spain is the “Ground Zero for the start of a process towards deep transformation of our civilization and political economy.” It has been said that the protests in Spain were in part inspired by similar protests in Iceland and neighboring Portugal. Buoying Bauwens thesis, the Spanish protesters then inspired peers in Greece, and now across the world with the “Take the Square!” campaign, which has registered over 800 protests on its map so far. It calls on readers to keep organizing such protest campouts far into the future until global revolution is achieved.

The Future of Youth Activism

The majority of people in the world are under the age of 30, and more than a quarter of the world’s population is under 15. As they enter adulthood they will take for granted their ability to connect to the Internet at any time. In fact, the dichotomy between “connected” and “disconnected” will likely fade into history.

It should not surprise us that today’s youth activists are using Internet tools to provoke social change. The mutually dependent relationship between technology and activism has a long, complicated history. Anti-slave trade activists took advantage of the invention of the printing press. E.D Morel and his supporters in Congo Free State depended on the newly released one-click Kodak Brownie camera to expose the gruesome violence of Belgian forced labor in Africa. The Women’s Suffrage movement made use of the newly invented international postage stamp to create the world’s first global rights movement, which also led to international support against foot-binding in China and widow-burning in India. In other words, young activists have always adopted new technologies to push for social progress. The youth of 1968 grew up with television; we grew up with the Internet, and we have incorporated it into our daily lives for better and worse. A far more difficult question, then, is, what do the youth want? How do they envision their future and the future of their governments?

An informal survey of Internet-assisted activism over the past few years suggests a rudimentary taxonomy of approaches:

Anti-power: First and foremost, we can expect to see the continuation of anti-power protests that demand for the resignation of the political class without offering any concrete proposals for what should replace it. Young activists are not yet willing to suggest a return to the socialist forms of governance that have slowed growth in countries like Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, and Nepal. But they also realize that current forms of democratic governance tend to favor the already wealthy and powerful. Recent data from the World Bank suggests that global economic inequality is higher than had been previously estimated, and that inequality continues to grow along with youth unemployment. Until these trends begin to reverse, we can expect global youth to demand the resignation of those responsible for the policies that disadvantage them. As we have seen in the cases of Egypt and Spain, however, such movements could lead to an endless cycle of protest, rather than the implementation of real social change.

Hacktivism: When MasterCard, Visa, Amazon, Paypal, Swiss Postal Finance, and others refused to process donations to Wikileaks following the release of secret US diplomatic cables, a loose network of activists calling themselves “Anonymous” launched “Operation Payback,” an attack on the companies’ servers which rendered them inaccessible for up to an entire day. Wikileaks itself exemplifies the spirit of hacktivism, using technology to threaten the privileged position of the powerful through the use of radical transparency. In the past month alone the hacktivist groups “Anonymous” and “Lulzsec” have attacked several government websites in Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela. In Peru a group calling itself “Piratas de la Red” hacked into a Peruvian police database and published the names of special force police officers. The Mexican chapter of Anonymous even gained access to the database of the Federal Elections Institute just one day before crucial elections in Mexico State. Some commentators, like Evgeny Morozov, claim that DDoS attacks are a legit form of civil disobedience while others, like Benjamin Greenberg, say such attacks are an affront to free speech. While most media coverage of hacktivism focuses on attacks against the servers of governments and major corporations, human rights organizations are also frequently affected.

Public Policy Advocacy: Many, perhaps most youth activists are drawn to anti-power forms of protest, but others focus their time on reforming public policy. In Mexico, for example, activists were able to repeal a federal tax increase on Internet access by launching the #InternetNecesario campaign, which drew massive online participation, led to a debate with members of congress, and the tax’s eventual repeal. Such campaigns can also target the policies of corporations. In 2010 Greenpeace launched an effective campaign to pressure Nestlé to stop using palm oil from plantations that are linked to deforestation. Over the past few years “new media advocacy” has transformed from its grassroots beginnings to become an entire industry of consultants who explain to NGOs how to use social media to increase donations, build up mailing lists, and influence politicians. As such activism formalizes into institutions, however, it also tends to drive young people away.

Open Data: Another movement that aims for reform rather than overthrow is the Open Data community, which calls on governments to provide its citizens with access to raw data that can be analyzed, visualized and re-used in applications. For years groups like Sunlight Foundation and Open Knowledge Foundation have promoted the use of Open Data in the US and UK respectively, but they are now joined by the likes of Garage Lab in Argentina, Open Data Mexico, Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente in Chile, the World Wide Web Foundation in Ghana, Janaagraha in India, Afrographique in South Africa, and SODNET in Kenya. These organizations are young and tech savvy. They believe that greater access and use of government information will lead to greater accountability and more civic participation.

Public Constituency: A common criticism of Internet-assisted activism is that it only empowers groups that have access to computers, smart phones, and internet connections; in other words, the middle and upper classes. It is for this reason that we should not be surprised that Internet users in Mexico carried out a successful campaign against a federal tax on Internet access. But, unsurprisingly, we have yet to observe any online campaigns for access to potable water in rural villages. A truly representative democracy requires a representative public constituency, where the voices of all citizens are heard; not just the urban elites. Groups like Rising Voices and Digital Democracy work with under-represented communities to educate them on the use of online tools to increase civic presence and engagement. Similar projects work around the world at the local level – including in many public libraries – but they tend to attract a smaller share of participation from youth activists.

Autonomy: Finally, we see a segment of youth activists that seem to care little about either reforming or overthrowing the government. They use social networks and technology to improve their own communities without any government involvement at all. Residents of Guadalajara and Mexico City grew tired of city governments that ignored their pleas for bike lanes and pedestrian crosswalks. They formed an online community that meets offline once a week to paint a new bike lane or crosswalk in a zone identified as dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. They have even printed out “wiki-tickets” to place on vehicles parked on sidewalks and crosswalks. In China the 1KG project (short for “one more kilogram in your backpack”) encourages urban youth to take school books with them on their travels to rural China. They have distributed textbooks to over 1,000 rural schools without any government involvement. The “guerilla gardening” movement aims to make effective use of municipal land that has been ignored by the government and absentee property owners. Activists in Taiwan, for example, regularly reclaim neglected areas of Taipei to create community gardens with a strong focus on herbal medicine and acupuncture. It is doubtful that we will see a return to the kind of “turn on, tune in, drop out” activism of the 1960′s, which led to experiments in communal, off-the-grid living, but it would not be surprising to see a reactionary movement that emphasizes autonomy and local community.

These six approaches to Internet-assisted activism should not be seen as exclusive and contradictory, but rather overlapping and complementary. Many of the same young activists who paint guerilla crosswalks on Saturday afternoon are also lobbying congress on Tuesday and visualizing government data on Thursday. In 1968 images of youth raising their fists in angry defiance splashed across television screens and created the world’s first global social catharsis. The protests of that year now seem minor compared to what has taken place so far in 2011, led by the first generation of youth to grow up with computers. Still, it remains to be seen what, if anything, we will achieve with our growing networks of activists as we face economic inequality, youth unemployment, food shortages, and climate change.

Some, like Michel Bauwens, see “the start of a process towards deep transformation of our civilization and political economy” while others predict much more of the same political infighting and government secrecy. What young activists have already shown, is that there is agency in their activities. They have already overthrown dictators, repealed unjust laws, and called the world’s attention to stories that the mainstream media were too willing to ignore. As George Landow once remarked, “technology always confers power to someone. It gives power to those who possess it, those who can use it, those who have access to it.” A slightly simplistic interpretation is that technology confers power to young people. What we will do with that power will be for future historians to contemplate.

This essay is not a blanket criticism against anti-power activism. Indeed, in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, the old political class must be removed in order to create spaces for new forms of accountability and participation to blossom. Too often, however, anti-power mobilizations lose their strength and unity once the old political class is forced out. Though “good governance” is not nearly as sexy as revolutionary slogans, anti-power activism must go hand in hand with movements for transparency, constituency building, and smart policy to bring about a truly progressive future.

2 Comments

  1. 1) What are you doing reading Time?

    2) Haven’t you become quite the conformist in your old age.

    3) You’re reflecting a temper tantrum I threw this morning about how frustrated I am by Occupy. Their anti-power tactics are giving cover to those who don’t want to address issues of inequality, and making it harder for the ones who are actually working to address these issues to be taken seriously. They had a window to really push this agenda and the blew it.

    One question: if this anti-power energy were channeled into reform, how would we ensure that non-wired constituencies are well-served? It seems to me that the organizations that are best positioned to serve the disempowered are the least likely to be able to take advantage of open data. Will issues like prison reform and fair housing fall further off the radar because they’re outshined by issues that have more tech-savvy advocates?

    Reply
  2. jesus, 100,000 words … what’s the twitter version?

    Reply

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