I remember listening to a story from a professor in Egypt who was suddenly interrupted by a student that had never spoken in the semester and who from the back of the room said they were going to bring down Mubarak’s government. In that moment the professor could not fully comprehend what he had been told… and the rest is now history still unfolding in front of our eyes.
Afterwards I hear another story about a student’s reaction to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. When asked what he thought would happen next, he answered that the coming week they would topple whoever was in government again.
When faced with disequilibrium societies look for an authority to restore protection, direction and order according to “Leadership Without Easy Answers” by Ronald Heifetz. And when people believe the solutions must come from the so-called leader, but he is incapable of satisfying their demands or concerns, then he is blamed. A rebellion might occur against the underperforming leader and because is seen as the problem he must be replaced. From Heifetz’s perspective, this is a common mistake and countries get trapped in this vicious cycle in which leaders get permanently changed by these rebellions while the problems remain.
This tends to happen when people believe problems can be solved with technical solutions but they really represent adaptive challenges. Unfortunately the Internet has reinforced the idea that problems can be solved technically or simplistically when some video, blog or news story goes viral.
Tufecki points out in her blog eight principles behind the #freemona campaign which help explain this phenomenon. I will only mention two of them because of their relevance to make this point. First, she says that it remains easier to organize for “no” that for complex discussions. Single-issue campaigns build upon a principle of life, Tufecki says.
In the context of leadership this can be a dangerous approach, because bringing down governments is easy, but having a functioning government is hard. In the case of Egypt the purpose was to take down Mubarak, but it has proven extremely complex to form a functioning government afterwards. That is why the military was in charge for a long period of time.
The question that remains is: how to harness the Internet to create a more significant debate about the future of Egypt in this case? Can you create from the Internet what Heifetz calls a “holding environment” for deeper discussions about the adaptive challenges ahead? What are the group dynamics like on the Internet? Can you identify the factions to diagnose the system? Do people simply go to the least common denominator of a solution or to Goodwin’s Law? Will the conversation be hijacked by the “netizens” that Rebecca McKinnon mentions in “Consent of the Networked”? If the long-tail applies, then how do we know there has been enough representation in the discussions? How can you motivate both an online and offline discussion about the adaptive challenges?
Tufekci also mentions speed. She says social media speeds up everything. But governments and societies work at a different pace. “Leadership Without Easy Answers” suggests that the leader must pace the work, the adaptive challenge, wait for the issue to be ripe or look for ways to ripen the issue. Could the Internet be used to ripen the issues at stake? Could the Internet serve as a way of producing faster results in working with adaptive challenges?
What I am trying to say is that the Internet makes it fairly easy to mobilize for simplistic reasons, but very complicated to mobilize adaptive work. Take the open source movement as an example of this. Many hands participate, and through trial and error a software program or application might emerge, but it does not happened with the speed that people mobilized to #freemona. It takes more than a few emails and tweets to produce an open source application, which in a way is similar but not nearly as complex as resolving an adaptive challenge.
To further prove this argument we can also turn to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. Jaron Lanier talks about the Hazards of Nerd Supremacy in such a way that one can fairly deduce that democratic governments are at a higher risk than authoritarian States were there is no level of freedom. My concern about this is that citizens might lose sight of the real differences and nuances and caveats between democratic regimes and authoritarian ones. If people in the U.S. think their government is acting essentially in the same manner as the Chinese regarding freedoms, for example, then affecting policy towards China could change dramatically.
On his column in El País of Spain, Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel laureate for Literature, shares some of his views on Wikileaks, which are interestingly similar to those of Lanier. Vargas Llosa says (translation is mine):
“It is easier to obtain credentials as a fighter for freedom by exercising contraband and technological piracy in open societies, with the protection of a rule of law always reticent to sanction the crimes of the freedom of speech to not give the impression of restricting that liberty to criticize, which is in effect an essential support of democracy, than by infiltrating itself into the secrets of totalitarian governments”.