Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Social Media Gospel

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Arianna Huffington has an interesting piece up over at her online namesake: Facebook, Twitter and the Search for Peace in the Middle East. In the article, she names a handful of examples from the Arab world where digital, networked technology and the social media that ride atop it, are creating new opportunities for social change (under the familiar banner, "Peace in the Middle East"). While she does name social media's and other technologies' roles in contributing to terrorism, the tenor of the piece of mostly optimistic, best summed up in the final two paragraphs:
And though, as we've seen, technology can be used to terrorize and divide, social media, by its nature, tilts toward bringing down barriers and connecting people. Which is what is starting to happen in the Middle East -- a powerful tool in the crucial battle for hearts and minds being waged between the terrorists and the moderates.

No longer is our best hope for change in the region the far-too-often failed process of our government pressuring their governments. If fundamental change happens, it's going to come from the bottom up -- with social media fueling the transformation.
Read on for a few questions I have about Huffington's assumptions about technology and social change...

The ambivalence of The Powers
One example Huffington cites is the State Department's role in encouraging Twitter usage during the post-election chaos in Iran last year. But as I noted recently in the case of WikiLeaks, nation-states and concomitant economies are deeply ambivalent about social media. Indeed, in the week since I posted that, Julian Assange has been arrested and world governments are salivating to see him punished in any way they can justify. Credit card companies have shut down their channels by which people could donate to WikiLeaks. Huffington herself notes this ambivalence in the piece but only in passing. So it seems to me that this ambivalence on the part of governments and economies, as well as the disruptive, unpredictable nature of internet technologies and how those organizations (small and large, powerful and powerless) make use of them, factor into a heavy dose of doubt on my part that social media will bring about any significant impact toward "Peace in the Middle East." In other words: Huffington's piece has an inflated view of the goodness and potential of social media. Next, I'll question the assumption driving Huffington's final sentence: "If fundamental change happens, it's going to come from the bottom up -- with social media fueling the transformation."

James Davison Hunter's recent book, To Change the World, brings this popular assumption on social change directly into question. Here's a quick list of propositions for how social/cultural change works, that Hunter unpacks in the book:

  • Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up
  • Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige
  • World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap
  • Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight
If Hunter is right (I think he's on to something) and if I'm right that the powers that be are deeply ambivalent about social media, then it seems unreasonable to be so optimistic. In addition to a wrong assumption about social change, such optimism also seems to ignore the global telecommunications and electronics manufacturing industries that make such technologies possible in the first place. If these industries' capital interests are jeopardized by social unrest around the globe, which their products and services help facilitate, do we have such faith in their sympathy to our various social causes? Are we end users of such products and services aware of the mind-bendingly complex and powerful infrastructures these technologies operate on? Do we know the monitoring and control measures built into the infrastructure, and who has access to such back-end power? My quasi-educated answer is: No, we don't. We're largely ignorant of these things, to our own peril.

This is somewhat tangential, but Huffington also cites the use of social media to raise awareness about environmental concerns. This strikes me as deeply ironic. The technology economy thrives on planned obsolescence and vase economies of scale, an ideologically-driven practice that has profound impact on the environment, e.g. the "green waste" problem. This is why I chuckle when Google Maps tells me to "be green" and use a GPS or smartphone instead of printing directions on a sheet of paper. Never mind the fact that I'm practically bludgeoned with marketing to upgrade these gadgets once a year or more.

So to bring this rant to a close, I simply do not share the optimistic view on social media and other related technologies as instruments toward "peace" in any sense of the (contested) word.

[Update, Jan. 10, 2011]: Wired has an excellent article from late December that goes well with the skepticism that I express above: Why the Internet Is a Great Tool for Totalitarians by Evgeny Morozov

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