December 30, 2011

The Year People Doubted their Leaders: 2011 in Review

After the American Century

2011 was the year when people all over the world declared they doubted the legitimacy or the capacities of their leaders. This common theme emerged almost everywhere.

In Japan, after the Tsunami and accompanying nuclear plant disaster, the public rightly distrusted their government and its regulation of the utilities.

In Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya, the "Arab Spring" erupted, as dictators were thrown out of power.

In Syria, protests began and still continue calling for the end of a corrupt and nasty regime.

In the late summer and fall, Britain and the United States, protesters occupied public spaces protesting the banking system's irresponsible behavior, enormous unearned bonuses, and subsequent special treatment from their governments.

In the Russian winter,  thousands of people took to the streets to protest a corrupt regime and  a rigged election.

In Europe the EURO wobbled through to 2012, but the angry crowds in Greece, Italy and other parts of Southern Europe were also expressing their anger at incompetent leadership.

The cultures and political systems involved are quite different, and the problems are unique, but common to all of these events is an extensive use of smart phones, blogging, Youtube, and other aspects of the new media environment. We apparently are seeing a new disposition of information and communication, with accompanying disruptions of ill-founded legitimacy. 

At least one theory has been developed to explain these things, Howard Reingold's Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002), which has also spawned a webpage. Reingold focuses on what it can mean for millions of people to have access to smart phones. There are also people out there writing about "self organizing groups.) Whatever label we put on it, it seems the power of any centralized state to control the media is breaking down. 

I say "seems" because it is too soon to know the ultimate result. I am sympathetic to the idea that access to the new media increases the flow of information and thereby enhances democracy. But the new media also enhances the flow of dis-information, prejudice, anger, and half-truth. Amplifying people's voices may just create more confusion. (For discussion of this problem, see chapter eight on my Technology Matters,)

But these doubts should not distract us too much. For in 2011, it seems, the "smart mobs" were correct to overthrow Arab dictators, protest sweet deals for bankers who created the financial crisis, demand new elections in Russia, and shame the incompetent in Japan who had built a poorly protected nuclear plant in an exposed location.

The question becomes, what will follow these eruptions of popular protest in 2012? Will the Japanese create a more energy efficient, post-nuclear power system? Will Arab nations create a public sphere where different points of view are tolerated and democracy can flourish, or will they create ideologically conservative, closed societies? Will the occupation movement open up American democracy and help break the gridlock between Republicans and Democrats, or will it further polarize the United States? Will Syrians prove strong enough to overthrow their dictator? Will the Russian protesters be able to make their government more democratic or will its autocracy increase as a response? Will Europeans use the new media to help solve or to worsen the ongoing crisis of the Euro?  The opportunities are many but the dangers are rife.