A new kind of revolution

Posted on February 10, 2011 in Inclusion Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011.   Don Tapscott

In Tunisia or Egypt, there’s no George Washington or Mao Zedong ready to take power. So who or what is going to take charge?

Throughout history, revolutions always had leadership. Leaders articulated ambitions, co-ordinated logistics and planned demonstrations. They often obtained arms and provided military strategy. Sometimes, the masses were ahead of their leaders and, sometimes, there was a battle for leadership. But new leaders aspired to power when the old regimes collapsed.

But in Tunisia and Egypt, we see the contours of a new kind of revolution. Call it the “Wiki revolution.” Just as people can self-organize to contribute to Wikipedia, the computer operating system Linux, or the world’s biggest library of video content, they can participate in social change and coalesce into revolutionary movements as never before.

Enabled by social media, leadership is coming from the people themselves. Internet innovations such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter radically lower the cost and effort of collaboration. Social media are a game changer because they greatly facilitate citizens’ ability to organize despite censorship. They speed up the metabolism of dissatisfaction, enabling peers to come together to produce leaderless but nevertheless powerful movements for change.

Incredibly, a driving force in Egypt’s leaderless unrest is Khaled Said, a young businessman from Alexandria. He was reportedly beaten to death by police last year. But a Facebook page that bears his name has been a focal point for much of the current unrest. People don’t know who’s carrying his torch, but they flock to Mr. Said’s page to express their unhappiness.

True, as Malcolm Gladwell has argued, these activities may begin as weak links between people who don’t know each other. But, when taken together, the hundreds of thousands of weakly tied Egyptians marching in Cairo represent an unstoppable force. And nestled in these myriad weak ties are bonds that become stronger by every chanting hour.

Even without leaders, self-organization can be effective. In Tunisia, for example, much of the army sided with the protesters in the streets. When snipers associated with the old regime began shooting demonstrators, individuals took photos of the snipers and transmitted them to friendly army detachments that took them out. There were no disciplined revolutionary guards acting on orders from above. Self-acting individuals took the initiative to defend the demonstrators.

While new technologies make the organization of dissent easier, they pose a new challenge in revolutionary situations. Notwithstanding the power of peer production and self-organization, societies ultimately need organized leadership.

In Egypt, there’s a scramble under way to decide who will even speak for the mass movement. In Tunisia, the revolution happened so fast and the government fell so quickly that no leadership was in place for a successor government. This left thoughtful people everywhere scrambling to find a leadership to fill the void. I met a new Tunisian minister at the World Economic Forum who didn’t have a glimmer two weeks ago that he would be part of a revolutionary force. As a panelist, he didn’t have a nameplate – 24 hours earlier, he had no idea he would be in Davos.

Appropriately, Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution is being hailed as a model of social and democratic revolution in the Arab world. “We are going to leverage social media to build a horizontal democracy rather than a vertical democracy,” says Yassine Brahim, Tunisia’s new minister of infrastructure and transport.

His government hasn’t spelled out what a “horizontal democracy” actually means, but, in today’s Western democracies, citizens only play a role when they cast a ballot, with little or no influence between elections.

Could the first revolution born through peer collaboration lead to a new kind of collaborative government that engages its citizens in co-creating public value, democracy and social justice?

Don Tapscott’s new book (with Anthony D. Williams) isMacrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World.

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