Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Mid-East Revolutions, the Internet and Greek Mythology: God Killers

I've been contemplating the on going debate about the power of the internet in organizing and supporting revolutions.  Any number of people suggest that the power of social media is over stated.  That, even without it or with minimal access, revolutions still manage to organize and that a revolution on the internet must follow the dictates set out by Mao in "On Guerrilla War": in short, they must eventually organize and go into the street.  

While this is true, my own thoughts suggested that, regardless of this fact, without the internet and the speedy flow of information into once repressed environments, modern revolutions would not have occurred.  Not at the speed that they were able to destabilize and reduce existing regimes. 

The debate over that power rages on.  Watching a recent panel at the Middle East Institute, Courtney Radsch insisted (paraphrasing) that the amount of internet penetration could not be evaluated without noting the penetration of cellular phones.  In essence, modern communication makes revolutions in repressive states more than possible, it makes it inevitable.  That pressing "like" isn't just a risk averse manner of participating as Gladwell insists, incapable of translating to the risk necessary to counter the power of real force, but can act as a social power of its own.  

Her counter on the panel took Gladwell's position, insisting that the internet was only a tool and that the real organization necessary for a revolution took place on the streets, in the Mosque and among existing or created organizations.  The debate was interesting, but the two points seemed to be missing the point.  Even Gladwell, writing for a magazine who posted his thoughts on their "e-mag" website, ironically, missed the point.

It wasn't social media, blogs, facbook or twitter, that presaged revolution.  It was the internet period, regardless of the app.  The internet itself is one giant "killer app", a "God Killer" that only myth and legend dared to suggest would come to exist.  Well, only myths and legends if you discount Nietzsche.  

Two Greek myth's portend the power of the internet.  In one myth, Zeus, who has just deposed his father Kronos, is given the same prophecy that had prompted Kronos to eat his own children.  One day a child of Zeus and Metis would depose Zeus and destroy the gods.  Metis was pregnant with Zeus' child.  Taking this prophecy seriously, Zeus swallows pregnant Metis.  Years later, suffering from a horrible headache, Zeus calls for Hephaestus to bring his hammer and open Zeus' head.  Zeus' head splits open and out pops Athena, goddess of wisdom, fully armed and full grown.

Through out Greek mythology, Zeus is constantly on the look out and battling other gods who he deems are threatening his position on the throne of Olympus, who may carry out the old prophesy.  In the meantime, Athena remains one of his favorites.  He gives her his aegis or shield with the head of Medusa as it's insignia.  She takes as her own symbol the "wise old owl" and she gives to man kind various gifts, including the olive tree.  

Athena is the closest thing to a favored child of Zeus.  The entire time, Zeus is nurturing his own destruction and the destruction of the gods at his bosom.  It is not Ares, the god of War, nor Apollo, the shining one, not Artemis nor Aphrodite.  Not even Poseidon or Hades, two of Zeus' brothers who seem constantly jealous of his position.  Even Hera, who in retrospect in attempting to belay Zeus' continuing liaisons producing offspring, is attempting to maintain the status of the gods and Olympus by forestalling the prophesy.

It is wise and thoughtful Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, the daughter of Metis/knowledge, who will eventually destroy the gods because it is the proliferation of knowledge and wisdom that makes the gods obsolete.  When men understood what made the rains come, the rivers flow, the earth to turn, the sun to rise and the moon to shine; when he understood the passions that ruled man, created machines and built structures that would serve generations and could write down his own words that would be passed down through all the ages, man would no longer require the gods

The story of Prometheus, who steals the fire of the gods and gives it to man kind is a similar story. At the end, however, Prometheus is punished by being chained to a rock where a giant eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back and start all over again.  Of course, the punishment is too late.  The cat, as they say, was out of the bag.  The fire of the gods was not just the power of warmth, but of light even in the darkest places.  It meant that mankind no longer had to cower in the night from whatever evils lurked.  With the power of fire, mankind could create new and powerful tools that could rival the power of the gods.

These are essentially prophecies foretelling the power of the internet, the power of knowledge and information to destroy modern day "gods".  Zeus never really suspected Athena, goddess of Wisdom, would be his down fall.  Largely because she was not stingy with her power, but gave her wise advice freely to gods and mankind alike.  Like Zeus, modern rulers of even repressive states are forced to embrace the tool, the weapon that will eventually destroy them, because it is the device by which the "gods", rulers of nations, must now conduct their business and organize the power of their growing states.  

However, like Athena, the internet is not stingy with it's power or wisdom, providing it to "gods" and the common man alike.  Whoever seeks wisdom and knowledge can easily find it on the net.  It is the modern day Agora, the Greek Forum, where all ideas are weighed and debated.  Wherever rulers attempt to control this information, users find a new way to obtain it.  Work arounds, dial ups, satellites and mobile devices that keep the flow of information moving in and out of even the most repressive regimes.  

What Greek idea most often wins the debate?  Democracy, literally people's government.  The internet, the super highway of information, has become the God Killer of modern times.

It does not even have to reach every human to provide this power.  However few are exposed in one area carries that knowledge and power out to the rest.  That is the real power of the internet, itself a "killer app".  Promethues' fire, lighting even the darkest corners of the world.  It is freedom writ large, the torch of liberty as never conceived.  

Like Prometheus, there is a tale of caution for those who have provided this killer app to the world: no good deed goes unpunished.  Information necessarily flows both ways.  Whatever power, whatever flow of information goes out of the United States and the "west", something will return to cause it continuous torment.  

The internet has broken the borders of ideas.  That means that even bad ideas can return in the form of individuals such as those who become "self-radicalized" and commit or attempt to commit terrorism in the name of an ideology that is no longer confined to the nether lands of remote nations.  Such ideas cannot be contained any more than the "fire" of freedom and democracy.  Fortunately, the Greek ideas of democracy and god killing remain the dominant idea in the agora.   The first gods to go will be those who refuse to share their power and attempt to control Athena, goddess of knowledge and wisdom, the flow of information.

Still, there is a warning for those gods, the creators and distributors of the fire and wisdom of the internet, Athena's intellectual children and would be Prometheus: go with the flow or become a victim of the God Killer

There is reason to hope the political dynamics in developing countries have changed such that hundreds of millions will now find they can push against an open door into political emancipation. However, the story need not end there. Better communication technology might just help those of us in the West who think that we, too, could use some relief from the dead hand of the state.

 Tax collection is set to become more difficult, as business oozes across traditional national and sub-national borders. Traditional borders evolved long ago in such a way that a government could monopolize almost the entirety of a person’s life within them, but communication technology is expanding each of our commercial spheres beyond them. And so we see a location-based bookstore (Borders) going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy while Amazon expands into more and more product lines....

The same applies to income taxes when work is atomized in the ways described above. Therefore, we see an inexorable decline in business taxes across the world and high-taxed welfare states in Western Europe unconvincingly moralizing about the “tax havens” as their revenues slowly seep away. Communication technology is changing the game in favour of individual liberty by spreading our commercial lives beyond the pens that governments drew for us in more technologically stable times.

The events in North Africa and the Middle East are complex in their causes. Nevertheless, one condition necessary for their occurrence is the proliferation of ever cheaper electronic communication and the dispersive, ungovernable networks they create. The rise of these networks has a neat physical explanation that applies just as much in the West as it has there. If I am right, then the effect of this great decentralization will be a great force for liberty here as it has been “over there.”

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