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Liberation Technology

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“Liberation Technology,”
Commencement Day Remarks, Communication Department, Stanford University
June 16, 2013

I want to begin these short remarks by congratulating you, not merely for graduating from Stanford University, but for choosing the major that you have.  It is by now a truism that our work, our politics, our social lives—even our consciousness—are all increasingly powerfully shaped by modern (and now, digital) tools of information and communication.  The spread of these tools represents one of the most rapid and profound social transformations in human history.  No one with even the slightest shred of modesty can possibly pretend to know exactly where this is headed or what will be the full range of impacts, positive and negative, on human possibilities and human freedom.  But economic and political advantage will increasingly lie with those who possess the ability to understand, utilize, and innovate with these technologies. 

Moreover, it has never been more important to understand how information flows; how organizations and political leaders communicate with society; how public opinion is formed; and how citizens in a democracy can communicate more effectively with one another and with their leaders.  Whether you are going to continue to study these flows of information, to generate them, or to make them more powerful, you are very well placed to have an impact.

In the last 5-6 years, a fierce debate has emerged about the political implications of the new social media, and the staggering volumes of data that they generate under the control not only of governments (which in a democracy can at least in theory be held accountable by the people), but also in the hands of corporations, which are subject to many fewer constraints.  Since the controversy erupted recently over the National Security Agency’s comprehensive tracking of mobile phone calls, sales of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, have increased by 6,000%.  Is this technology leaping forward so fast that we are headed toward a digital version of 1984, where the state knows everything about everyone?  Or is the real danger that total knowledge of a person’s politics, beliefs, tastes, purchases, travel, friends, illnesses, and even sexual preferences is now being assembled not by governments but by the big information companies?

And to what uses will all this data be put?  Will the gains in security and efficiency from amassing so much big data outweigh the risks to our privacy and dignity?  A story in the Wall Street Journal reported that there are half a million surveillance cameras in London, and that a person on the streets might be expected to be photographed 300 times in a single day.  That story ran not last month but eight years ago.  If London—and New York—are safer because of this surveillance, are we better off overall as a society? How do we weigh competing values? These are questions with which you will need to wrestle as you become influential citizens.  In fact, social media give you the tools to become influential citizens right now.

The loss of privacy, the growing tendency for everything we say and do and purchase to be recorded and tracked, is something that we must be vigilant about, if we are not to slip down a murky but dangerous path to tyranny of one form or another. It is even more of a concern in technically sophisticated authoritarian countries like Russia, Iran, and most of all China, which is catching up technologically with stunning speed. Eight years ago, China did not have many surveillance cameras.  Today, NPR reports, it has an estimated 20 million (possibly even 30 million) of them, and the number is growing rapidly.   Of course, the Chinese state insists that the purpose is to fight crime and maintain “social stability,” but these tools are making it harder for people to organize and demonstrate against the state.  And what will be the implications of having cameras in university classrooms, as one Chinese university has installed, or of the state using sophisticated facial recognition software to scour the images collected by these cameras, looking for dissidents? During the Green Movement in Iran following the Iranian presidential election exactly four years ago, the regime used facial recognition software to identify some of the protestors.  Then it arrested them.  Then it tortured them to get the passwords to their social media accounts.  Then it identified their friends and arrested them.  And that is how you use new methods of repression and old methods of repression to roll up and devastate a social movement.

Yet despite the growth of Internet surveillance and suppression; despite the more than 50,000 Internet police who now systematically patrol the web in China 24/7 looking for “harmful content” to purge; despite the tight control of historical information that leaves many college students in China today poorly informed about what happened in Tiananmen Square (and around the country) 24 years ago this month, popular movements for freedom and accountability keep cropping up.  And they use ingenious methods.  Recall if you can the famous picture on June 5, 1989 of a lone man blocking the path of four Chinese tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, as they made their way toward Tiananmen Square.  He is unarmed, save for what looks to be a briefcase in his left hand.  But he has stopped four tanks in their tracks.  That has become an iconic image in China, a symbol of resistance. So it is banned.  But recently some clever and no doubt young Chinese social media enthusiast photo-shopped the picture, substituting copies of the giant inflatable rubber duck (like the child’s bathtub variety) that had recently been floating in Hong Kong Harbour.  For a while, that picture—of the same brave man, now halting four giant rubber ducks—was able to circulate, showing that digital protestors were not giving up, and implying that Chinese army tanks would ultimately be no more effective than a trail of children’s toys in suppressing the will of the people. 

This is just a tiny reflection of the constant battle of wits and will between government and its critics that is taking place on the Internet in China.  You can’t use the date June 4th  in a microblog post because it is banned by the censors?  No worries, just call it May 35th.  One of the Chinese students taking my massive open online course this quarter on democratic development insisted that censorship is even having some perverse positive effects, because it is forcing critics to become more creative.  In fact, a whole new cultural symbol has been born out of this digital defiance.  It is called the Grass Mud Horse.  Cyber-dissidents present it, tongue in cheek as some great mythical figure, but in fact it is the product of recent imagination, named so that its Mandarin language words enunciate an obscene pun, clearly directed at the Communist Party.

Over the past decade Internet usage has exploded in China.  In 2002, less than 5 percent of the population had access to the web.  Last year, it was estimated that about 42 percent do.  There are now 309 million users of microblogs in China.  That is almost as large as the entire population of the US.  Yes, Chinese are using these as purely social media, for friendships, games, fashions, and so on.  But they are also using them to express political views, to expose government wrongdoing, to protest injustices large and petty, and in subtle ways, to lay the ground for political change over the long run. 

As we witnessed in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries two years ago, these tools of digital communication—what I call “liberation technology”—are empowering citizens to struggle for freer, more open and accountable societies.  They are doing so by:

1. Widening the scope for expression, giving voice to ordinary citizens who previously could not be heard in the society.

2. Enabling citizens to discover widely shared interests and grievances, and forging bonds of solidarity and crosscutting ties across distinct groups.

3. Pluralizing sources of information and opinion—through blogging, citizen reporting, and online publications that are not under strict state control.

4. Making authoritarian rule and its injustices more transparent, including by uploading to the web photographic images and videos documenting human rights abuses, corruption, and wrongdoing of various kinds.

5. Inspiring people to action with powerful appeals, images, poetry, and music-- Such as the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page that was created after the brutal June 6, 2010 beating to death of a young man after he left a Cairo Internet café, where he had uploaded visual evidence of police corruption

6. Enabling activists to organize protests and demonstrations quickly and flexibly, and to bring them rapidly to scale.

7. Spreading news of demonstrations and their scale, stimulating further demonstrations, creating a sense of empowerment, and dispelling fear.

8. Activating regional and international attention to authoritarian abuses, thereby raising the costs to the authoritarian regime by mobilizing international action.
9. Helping to diffuse the skills, techniques, and content of successful protest mobilization across communities and national boundaries.

I do not suggest we make the same mistake of teleology that observers did six centuries ago, when the printing press revolutionized the accumulation and dissemination of information, enabling the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific revolution. We know now that the printing press also facilitated the rise of the centralized state and prompted the movement toward censorship. A century and a half ago, the telegraph was hailed as a tool to promote peace and understanding.  Suddenly, the world shrank; news that once took weeks to travel across the world could be conveyed instantly.  What followed was not peace and freedom but the bloodiest century in human history.  Today’s enthusiasts of liberation technology could be accused of committing the analytic sins of their Victorian forbearers:  “technological utopianism” and “chronocentricity,” that is, “the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history.”

In the end, technology is merely a tool, open to both noble and nefarious purposes.  Just as radio and TV could be vehicles of information pluralism and rational debate, so they could also be commandeered by totalitarian regimes for fanatical mobilization and total state control.  Authoritarian states could commandeer digital ICT to a similar effect.  However, to the extent that innovative citizens can improve and better utilize these tools, they can bring about the downfall of authoritarianism and the deepening and improvement of democracy.  In many countries, through great pluck, imagination, and courage, they have already done so.  Now it is up to you to determine whether these digital tools of communication will expand or constrain freedom in the years and decades to come.