When Theories Matter: Uprisings in Authoritarian States

(Second in a series of hopefully accessible posts about this hard-to-read paper).

From time to time, sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee reading disputes about Twitter Revolts and Facebook Revolutions, it is easy to think that The Argument is the Thing. But it isn't, of course. The public profile of these debates about how digital technologies intertwine with dissent in authoritarian states, sprawling from the pages of the New Yorker to Foreign Policy, from specialized academic journals to urgent pamphlets, means that the arguments may influence the choices of dissidents operating in perilous environments; may sway them one way or another as they make life-changing decisions. So the least we can do, even those of us on the fringes of the debates, is to try for the truth.

Particularly strange, perhaps, is that these disputes are unavoidably theoretical. Of course, it matters greatly to tell a coherent and accurate story of how events played out in each particular case, but the implications of the debates are most urgent for uprisings that have not yet happened and for protests that have not yet been organized. No matter how exhaustively one recounts the unfolding of events in Tunisia in 2011 and 2012, such a telling alone cannot provide guidance to dissidents in Azerbaijan, in Russia, or in Canada for that matter. We cannot avoid theory: we point to a set of mechanisms and say "this happened here because of these conditions and for these reasons. In other conditions in different places, here are the possible outcomes". Talk turns inevitably to what is primary and what is mere epiphenomenon. We tell stories that highlight what seems essential and draw attention away from the factors that we deem unimportant. We theorize, and we tell stories based on those theories. We retell anecdotes that encapsulate those theories to prove our points.

When it comes to questions of digital technologies and their roles in political change, and particularly dissent in authoritarian states, there is a whole vocabulary that has come into being that carries along a set of narratives. There are assumptions behind terms such as "digital activist", "internet freedom", and "network society" that carry over into the stories and the habitual grooves of thought that we take with us as we try to understand new developments.

One current that has been particularly influential in the debates around the "Arab Spring" uprisings is based on the idea of informational cascades, and this current provides the theory behind much of the optimistic talk about Facebook revolutions and the potential for digital technologies to undermine authoritarian regimes. It's not the only theory of uprisings, but it is a compelling one. So if you're going to tell a different story about digital technologies, you need a different theory. I went looking for what that theory should be, and didn't find one, so I put one together myself, and that's what these posts are about.

Next: a look at information cascades and what they leave out.

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  1. At this stage, theory cannot keep up with realities. The technologies, and the unexpected applications of the technologies, are moving in “internet time”. No two waves of uprisings will take place with the same technologies.
    In 1989, it was said that Chinese students at universities all over the world were faxing home front pages of local newspapers to keep the demonstrators up to date on their global images, regardless of official domestic accounts. (remember fax?)
    Last year, Egypt cut off internet connection in desperation. This year, Syria cut off its internet connection in an efficient, disciplined, practiced way for an offensive.
    Five or ten years from now, when facebook and twitter are vague memories, today’s theorizing isn’t likely to be much use.

  2. Today’s theorizing may not be of much use, but people will inevitably be theorizing anyway, whether we realize it or not.
    To take one example: Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker in 2010 saying that “The revolution will not be tweeted” (link), and that “High-risk activism … is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon.” Others disagreed, but all of them were theorizing about how uprisings work and what the necessary conditions are for them. Even talking about “internet freedom” has a theory behind it about the relationship between digital technologies and the rest of society, which you pick up on in your comment.
    So I’m not trying to argue that theory holds the answer, but that we all do it anyway even when we think we aren’t.

  3. Gladwell is an apologist, not a theorist. In general any statement that says X does not keep up with Y can be read that search, dissemination, and communalization of X is too slow to be useful in punditry about Y for people with an existing path dependent legacy social network. Or, to put it another way, the people busy doing do not have the time and ability to search through the people busy thinking. This is why odd alliances of thinkers tired of not having any effect with doers tired of not having enough success are part of history.

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