Technology; friend or foe to the state?

9th August, 2011 - 5 minutes read

In the past year we have been given countless examples of how everyday technology, especially social networks, has helped grow social movements and overthrow despotically lead governments. Facebook was cited endlessly by news sources as the catalyst for change in the ‘Arab Spring’ (and winter) uprisings across the Middle-East and North Africa. Not only did social networks provide the infrastructure needed to plan and execute protests in states with government controlled media, but they also allowed supporters from around the world to show their support by joining groups.

The power of technology in social movements is not limited to the ‘Arab Spring’. And the use of technology in social movements is not a new idea either. The growing role of media technology, TV developments in particular, in 1960’s America helped the Civil rights Movement gain momentum and a wider support base as the horrors of racial prejudice were brought to life by visual images broadcast to millions.

Social networks have been used by otherwise silenced critics of the Chinese government, which also has a tight grip on mainstream media. The Chinese political activist and world renowned artist Ai Weiwei, who was recently released from prison in China, regularly communicates to his followers and supporters via Twitter (although recent reports suggest that the government have banned him from interviews and Twitter for a year following his release). So, in light of the above it would be difficult to argue against technology as an indispensible tool for facilitating change and has helped bring ‘power to the people’ for decades, right? Some aren’t so sure.

The British government and the Metropolitan Police have been pointing towards certain technologies as  contributing factors explaining the escalation of recent widespread rioting, looting and ‘thuggery’ in London and other UK cities. Yesterday The Independent had no choice by to sac one of their more controversial bloggers, Jody McIntyre following his Tweets which appeared to support the riots and condoned the movement to ‘beat the feds’. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has also become embroiled in the mess amid suggestions that it has been used by rioters to organises specific targets at arranged times, a tactic that has proved highly successful for the troublemakers and extremely difficult to police. There are reports emerging on the London grapevine that BBM will be shut down until the rioting stops, but this cannot be verified.

The problem with BBM from the authorities’ perspective is that it cannot be seen publicly in real time, making it far more difficult to use as a source of intelligence than social networks. However BlackBerry have told the Met that they will help police by giving them information on those spreading the word and organising acts civil disobedience, according to the BBC. This presents the more positive side of technology and how it can help both legitimate protesters AND states struggling with, in this case, mindless violence. Other technology is also crucial to efforts to make arrests and get to the bottom of what has been going on. CCTV has become a staple aspect of policing and devices such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition are excellent tools to combat crime.

The crux of the matter is that in the wrong hands anything can become a problem, as Murdoch and The News of the World knows all too well. Without social networks millions of people in the middle-East and Africa might still be living under dictatorships. At the same time dangerous people from one side of the world would have more difficulty finding like-minded individuals from another side of the planet if social networks and the internet did not exist. In this respect the use for good and abuse of technology balance each other out. It comes down to trusting individuals and giving them the responsibility to be good, not evil, but that’s a whole other debate that’s been going on for millennia. Even Plato and his mates couldn’t solve that one.