The liberating potential of ICT

Posted on February 19, 2011  /  5 Comments

Ever since Harvard Forum II, Randy Spence and I have been kicking around Amartya Sen’s notion that ICTs have a net positive liberating potential. I have been the skeptic. But evidence is adding up in Randy’s column:

For some of the protesters facing Bahrain’s heavily armed security forces in and around Pearl Square in Manama, the most powerful weapon against shotguns and tear gas has been the tiny camera inside their cellphones.

By uploading images of this week’s violence in Manama, the capital, to Web sites like YouTube and yFrog, and then sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, the protesters upstaged government accounts and drew worldwide attention to their demands.

A novelty less than a decade ago, the cellphone camera has become a vital tool to document the government response to the unrest that has spread through the Middle East and North Africa.

Full story.


  1. Sorry for the late and long comment. It does appear that mobiles with cameras, and the Internet and social networks, are playing important several roles in the current revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. One is to ease the organization of protests. This has been an important role at least since the use of text messaging to oust the Philippine president in 2001. Perhaps a more important role is to enable protesters to communicate and learn the reactions of the regimes, it appears increasing their anger and determination. Another role is to spread the protests to other countries, giving protesters additional motivation and confidence. A fourth is to show what is happening to the international community, and how the Americans and Europeans in particular are reacting. On this score, it has to be said that the West has been caught with its pants down, and THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES is a message that comes out clearly in traditional and new media. After four decades of propping up these dictatorships for economic and security interests, while all the time preaching democracy, the hypocrisy is rather unmistakable.

    Another role that is I think even more important is in the past years, leading up to these outbreaks. Mobiles and Internet spread widely while Facebook and Twitter developed. Particularly young people were able to easily talk with each other and with counterparts across the World, learning their situations and clearly understanding what was being denied them. His has been happening throughout the World – so will these protests spread to other regions? China: there were reports of protests today. The Chinese Government is very good at blocking, filtering and using mobile and social networks to repress opposition. While having respect for China’s economic progress, there is a generation of young Chinese who have been talking to national and international ‘friends’ for years and are unhappy – to put it extremely mildly – at the authoritarian control and hubris of their Government. India: There is currently armed insurrection in 1/3 of India. It seems unlikely that the endemic corruption and inhuman caste system will survive very much longer. USA: It seems equally unlikely that there won’t be more street protests against a government and corporate system which, in spite of hopes and efforts of the current Administration, has become one of the World’s less responsive and more corrupt.

    There are also negative impacts of mobile and social networks but, as Sen said recently, the telephone is generally freedom-enhancing, and as Rohan has pointed out, many countries have reached the point where the closure of networks for very long is just too costly. It does appear that the World has changed; dinosaurs have been created, dead men walking, both political strong men and business crooks and thugs. If the tsunami is strong enough, most may be persuaded to take their ill gotten gains and find some still-despotic quagmire to live out their pathetic lives. Some madmen look likely to go down only in flames – Gaddafi, Mugabe, the Burmese Generals, the Iranian regime. As an economist, I suggest we start a discussion soon on how these political revolutions will change the World economy – also an extremely interesting, challenging and likely volatile picture. There have been recent rumours in the news media that Twitter or Facebook may get the Nobel Peace Prize. If mobile and social networks play a fundamentally important role in spreading responsible and democratic government widely, as may well be the case, they deserve all the accolades they get. In the interim, such a prize would miss the point. These are tools. The people on center stage are the protestors. If I were on the Nobel Committee, I would vote that the prize go to all the Arab protestors.

  2. Dear Rohan and all,
    The discussion is great. I witnessed similar usage of mobile and social media during the uprising in Egypt. I did shared with my colleagues in Ottawa my observations about the uses of social media and ICT in general and I would summarize it as following:
    – ICT and social media for mobilizing protesters, organizing demonstrations and communicating. Mainly before the uprising and during the first days before the Internet and mobile networks shutdown;
    – ICT and social media for documentation, information sharing, and media coverage. The confrontation between demonstrators and police forces were covered mainly by mobile phones, small cameras and few professional journalists kept in one single hotel. This function allowed in fact covering and sharing massacres, fighting, brutality of policemen and courage of demonstrators. It is also by phone and small cameras that some TV channels were fed in news by demonstrators and witnesses.
    Bluetooth transfer was also crucial in sharing video one to one, in the field and accross the country.
    – Social media and ICTs were used by the regime and the pro-regime, as in the case of Iran in 2008.
    I noticed an ICT-mind-set everywhere, in the street with the signs held by the demonstrators: Mubarak Game Over; Ctrl+Alt+Delete; Sorry your credit is expired (as in the prepaid service); etc.

    Similar uses of ICTs and social media is ongoing now in Libya. I would add that Al-Jazeera live contact with Libyans in Libya and around, by phone, by email and by Twitter constitute a case to study here I think. While media said Internet is cut, It looks like mobile network is still working because Al-Jazeera is receiving call from Libya.

    I hope this help teh discussion

  3. Jaruzelski shut down the Polish telephone network in 1981.

    Gyanendra shut down all telecom networks and the Internet a few years back in Nepal.

    Both lost.

    There is nothing to shut down in N Korea and Myanmar. The tyrants are still in place.

    Sri Lanka shut down what little telecom that existed in Jaffna during the war. Localized shutdowns only. Regime survived.

    Mubarak shut down telecom and Internet in Egypt. He is now the ruler of his household in Sharm-el-Shiekh.

    Qaddafi has shut down the networks. Looks like it’s Hugo’s hospitality for him (or he can come to Sri Lanka).

    What are the parameters? At what point does throwing the kill switch become counter-productive?

  4. Hi Rohan. You may have answered your question. It looks like it becomes unproductive as soon as the network becomes widely embedded in the society (and the anger widely shared). Perhaps this is related to the striking ‘loss of fear’ phenomenon reported in the Arab uprisings. Is there a critical mass or point, where enough of the population is united that they know they will win if they stay committed? Unless they are facing a genocidal psychopath like Gaddafi – and hopefully there are not too many of these.