Nov 3, 2009

Dictator’s Dilemma and the power of The Cell Phone

The statement that “new ICTs empower the individual and non-state actors at the expense of the state (of course)” seems to have become quite a cliché by now. Yet, although not arguing against it, this week’s readings provided an alternative understanding of the situation as well: one where the state not only retains its power, but can also use the ICTs to enhance it.
Hanson summarizes the usual argument that the modern ICTs, especially the Internet, facilitate communication, information exchange, and coordination of activities, thus providing “the physical means of building coalitions across great distances, connecting local groups with international allies and enabling them to frame their claims in global terms.” This, of course, undermines the state and particularly its role as a core international actor. A counter-argument claims that despite being a powerful globalizing force, technology can “amplify political and/or social fragmentation by enabling more and more identities and interests […] to coalesce and thrive.”  But then, this is not news.
What I found more interesting was the “Dictator’s Dilemma”: the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How can a government give its people access to all the new technologies and information for purposes of health care, education, and commerce (for example) while blocking political information? This inevitably reminded me of Gorbachev’s “dilemma,” and his very honest attempts of reforming the USSR from within, essentially through glasnost and perestroika. The system was under extreme pressure: externally (the Reagan administration made sure of that), economically (it was turning into a starved state), militarily (Afghanistan has always been a big headache and a major waste of resources for any invader), and domestically (all of the above started making it increasingly unpopular among its own people, finally). It just needed another decisive factor to face its end. Apparently openness and (relative) freedom of information played this role, even if initially intended to serve the opposite purpose (at least, supposedly).
Again, how does one benefit from the advances of technology (Internet and other new ICTs) if the system is BASED on oppression, absence of freedom, and no real tolerance of reform? Hanson says that although the Internet generates political change (be it in the long or short-run; directly or indirectly), it does not necessarily result in democratic institutions. The people, as well as non/sub-state actors can have the illusion they have more freedom, and the expression of unorthodox ideas that are considered to be harmless can be tolerated for a while; however, states, particularly some states, learn very well how to “channel” this flow and thus ATTEMPT, at least, to manage the situation without obvious oppression (China’s flooding of the Internet with its own info in addition to the attempts of overt control, or Russia’s “Spinternet,” are good examples here). Very much like the "mainstream" media management attempts in the good old days…
Well, perhaps the cell phone, with its mobility, person-to-person platform, and real multi-modality can truly overcome all attempted limitation or “management” by the government? Castells sees its strength in being a tool that enables a personal network (i.e. trusted and having no room for potentially hostile external members), which can easily move one into action for change. Coupled with the fact that cell phone use is spreading with inconceivable speed around the world, it can indeed stand the chance of being the ultimate “empowering” tool in the coming decades (we already saw how such networks work in Iran, Moldova, Belarus… even Ukraine and Armenia, to an extent).
But such an argument ignores factors such as the need for state “permission,” if a provider is to operate in a country, cell phone viability (can the local population afford buying the phone and, later, paying for the services?), as well as its cultural applicability as a primary tool of politically unorthodox communication. In any case, it is still very much a developing issue, deserving close attention as it unfolds.

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