information age
February 13, 2013

The politics of the information age

Revolutions of Arab world will unfold over many decades, not a few seasons or years

By Joseph S. Nye

The second anniversary of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt was marked by riots on Tahrir Square that made many observers fear their optimistic projections in 2011 had been dashed. Part of the problem is that expectations had been distorted by a metaphor that described events in short-run terms. If, instead of Arab Spring, we had spoken of “Arab revolutions,” we might have had more realistic expectations. Revolutions unfold over decades, not seasons or years.

Consider the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Who would have predicted that within a decade, an obscure Corsican soldier would lead French armies to the banks of the Nile, or that the Napoleonic Wars would disrupt Europe until 1815?

If we think of the Arab revolutions, there are many surprises yet to come. So far, most Arab monarchies have had enough legitimacy, money and force to survive the waves of popular revolt that have brought down secular republican autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, but we are only two years into the revolutionary process.

Beneath the Arab political revolutions lies a deeper and longer process of radical change that is sometimes called the information revolution. We cannot yet fully grasp its implications, but it is fundamentally transforming the nature of power in the 21st century, in which all states exist in an environment that even the most powerful authorities cannot control as they did in the past.
Governments have always worried about the flow and control of information, and our age is hardly the first to be strongly affected by dramatic changes in information technology.

Gutenberg’s printing press was important to the origins of the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing wars in Europe. Today, however, a much larger part of the population, both within and among countries, has access to the power that comes from information.

The current global revolution is based on rapid technological advances that have dramatically decreased the cost of creating, finding and transmitting information. Computing power doubled roughly every 18 months for 30 years, and, by the beginning of the 21st century, it cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. If the price of automobiles had fallen as quickly as the price of semiconductors, a car today would cost $5.

As recently as the 1980s, phone calls over copper wire could carry only one page of information per second; today, a thin strand of optical fiber can transmit 90,000 volumes in a second. In 1980, a gigabyte of data storage occupied a room; now, 200 gigabytes of storage fits in your shirt pocket.

Even more crucial has been the enormous drop in the cost of transmitting information, which reduces barriers to entry. As computing power has become cheaper and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones and other portable devices, the decentralizing effects have been dramatic. Power over information is much more widely distributed today than even a few decades ago.

As a result, world politics is no longer the sole province of governments. Individuals and private organizations – including WikiLeaks, multinational corporations, NGOs, terrorists or spontaneous social movements – have been empowered to play a direct role.

The spread of information means that informal networks are undercutting the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy, with all governments less able to control their agendas. Political leaders enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events and must then communicate not only with other governments, but with civil society, as well.

But it would be a mistake to “over-learn” the lessons that the Arab revolutions have taught about information, technology and power. While the information revolution could, in principle, reduce large states’ power and increase that of small states and nonstate actors, politics and power are more complex than such technological determinism implies.

In the middle of the 20th century, people feared computers and new means of communications would create the kind of central governmental control dramatized in George Orwell’s 1984. And, indeed, authoritarian governments in China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have used the new technologies to try to control information. Ironically for cyber-utopians, the electronic trails created by social networks like Twitter and Facebook sometimes make the job of the secret police easier.

After its initial embarrassment by Twitter in 2009, the Iranian government was able to suppress the country’s “green” movement in 2010. Similarly, while the “great firewall of China” is far from perfect, the government has managed thus far to cope, even as the Internet has burgeoned in the country.

In other words, some aspects of the information revolution help the small, but some help the already large and powerful. Size still matters. While a hacker and a government can both create information and exploit the Internet, it matters for many purposes that large governments can deploy tens of thousands of trained people and have access to vast computing power to crack codes or intrude into other organizations.

Likewise, while it is now cheap to disseminate existing information, the collection and production of new information often requires major investment, and, in many competitive situations, new information matters most. Intelligence collection is a good example, and the elaborate Stuxnet worm that disabled Iranian nuclear centrifuges seems to have been a government creation.

Governments and large states still have more resources than information-empowered private actors, but the stage on which they play is more crowded. How will the ensuing drama unfold? Who will win, and who will lose?

It will take decades, not a single season, to answer such questions. As events in Egypt and elsewhere have shown, we are only just beginning to comprehend the effects of the information revolution on power in this century.

– Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of The Future of Power.

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