Tech Coup 2.0 – The revolution will be twittervised…

Since I believe it is now a legal requirement for every blogger on the planet to put in their two cents about Egypt, what better way to get back in the swing of things after not writing for a while.   When I wrote the series on “Digital Water” (see here, here and here) I was thinking of government and corporate data, and how it’s eventual escape was largely inevitable.  I hadn’t really considered the converse side of that coin, the explosion of data UP from the ground level to the world’s view. How does information move not from specific confinement to broad access but from droplets in an indistinct sea to visibility as a single, visible and important datum?

For the third time in a year, (twice successfully) people in the middle east have risen up against a regime with a 30 year history of violence, corruption and repression. In Tunis and Cairo the people – not the army, not a rival religious faction, not a US- or Soviet-funded and armed militancy, but the actual citizenry, in huge numbers – have used political pressure, world opinion, the media and most of all technology to force the exit of a regime.  Has the world ever seen the ouster of two repressive governments in a month through essentially non-violent means? Regimes that for their part have no reciprocal qualms about using violence to perpetuate and enrich themselves rather than fulfill the social contract with their people? No doubt this is truly historic stuff.

Obviously, repressive regimes throughout the region have taken notice (and many are, I suspect, pretty much passing the proverbial twinkie right now).  Let us hope against hope that the repressed populations have taken note as well. Let us hope the dissaffected and disenfranchised millions have noted that after decades of struggle it was NOT the radicals, the armed insurgents, the islamist extremists or suicide bombers who have brought change to their countries or their neighbors.  It was ordinary people, connected, coordinated and organized through technology that has done what decades of killing by all sides could not.

During the protests in Iran, there was a reasonable, though I think somewhat facile, argument that Twitter* was singlehandedly helping move the crowds and shape history.  While that micro-messaging service certainly played a role, I think the real story emerging from the events of the past year is more fundamental and, over, say, the coming decade, potentially far more profound. I believe we are seeing something I’m calling “tech coup 2.0.”

I say 2.0 because, as I was writing this, I realized I’d seen this movie before.  Once upon a time, I was a Russia/Soviet studies guy.  While an undergrad, I watched the Warsaw Pact fall apart, followed by the literall fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dissolution of the USSR. Especially now, the week half of America is celebrating the 100th birthday of (an idealized revisionist version of) President Reagan, I am struck by a paper I worked on 20 years ago. Much as we love to applaud the Reagan/Bush policies of essentially spending the Soviets into submission because it makes us feel like it was our concious act of victory, there was a related dynamic at work I guess I’d call “tech coup” 1.0.

Part of why star wars and the arms race helped accelerate the collapse of an already creaking and schlerotic Soviet economy was pure dollars.  Even ignoring modern infrastructure, the health and nutrition of its citizens and other worthy spending priorities, a command economy with no markets or access to risk capital simply couldnt generate the funds to compete with the most cutting edge and expensive technology the west could produce.  We all know Star Wars never worked worth a damn.  I don’t know for sure, but my guess is, the highest levels at the White House and the Pentagon KNEW it would never work.  I think we poured in the billions anyway.  The THREAT that it would work forced the Soviets to respond, and the effort ran out the bank account.

There was another factor though, and that was speed.  Even if the money had been there, the Russians simply couldnt innovate fast enough anymore.  The combination of Moore’s Law, robust consumer markets and risk capital combined to lead to accelerating Western technological evolution that the command economy could NEVER catch up to again.

In a country where photocopiers required a security clearance, the innovation and pollination of ideas was simply too restricted. In the end, all the things that make Silicon Valley work were missing and the rate of acceleration doomed the Soviet system.  Put another way, the fax machine, email and the Internet were more fundamentally causal to the end of the USSR than any policy choice by Western governments.  There is an apocryphal story that we designed our fourth-generation fighters on Cray supercomputers, and the Russians designed theirs on drafting tables (“na kalyonkakh”, literally “on the knees”). While the Mig 31 may thus be an even greater testament to the quality of their people’s mathematical and design skills, if there is even a grain of truth to this, it is the anecdotal summation of the doom of the system. The Soviets could restrict the flow of ideas and information, or they could remain a first class superpower, but to do both was simply not possible anymore. Tech coup 1.0.

The grapevine in DC is abuzz this week with stories of “nobody saw this coming” and the intel community feeling particularly sheepish and uncomfortable at just how badly we missed this one. So I will go out on a limb and say that I think Tech Coup 2.0 hasn’t even found its legs yet.  More of this is coming, and I’ll bet a nickel it is coming a lot sooner than most people expect.

I am not an expert on a country by country basis, but I think the key factors ARE discernible. If my job were to say “Mr. President, here’s where else I think this will happen” (and isnt it nice for me it isnt, and I can pontificate any way I want with no downside) I would look for the following mix:

  • High unemployment: I worked in a development fund in Russia in the nineties because I believe that entrepreneurship and small business is the engine of job creation.  I also believe people with jobs leads directly to a stable and civil society, and 40% unemployment leads to people shooting each other in the streets.
  • A young, overly educated labor force: In country after country all over the middle east, regimes whose policies or corrupt nature meant they couldn’t provide jobs instead provided an educational system that turned out lawyers, PhDs, engineers and scientist, but neither the state nor the private economy could provide an outlet for those skills. For a few years, the answer of “keep them in school longer, give them another degree” helped, but with exploding youth populations (also likely to be the most tech savvy) and poor economic growth, the music stops with far too few chairs.  Thus, as with the USSR decades before, you end up with – literally – rocket scientists driving cabs, electrical engineers laying bricks and legal scholars selling bananas from carts.
  • Relatively wide access to mobile technology: Simply put, if cell phone and texting access is widespread, its all the technology needed.  This isn’t the recipe for North Korea if you get what I mean, but Egypt was relatively advanced in terms of access to basic technology for the populace.
  • A repressive political regime where the people widely understand the system to be corrupt and/or the administrations claims of legitimacy are widely regarded as a sham.
  • A clear target: If there is constant parliamentary maneuverings among dozens of factions such as in the “new Iraq” I dont see this happening.  The anger is too fractured, the factions to conflicting.  If there is ONE guy or a clear cadre/ruling class/royal family at the top on which everyone can focus their anger and frustrated aspirations, I think that is the final piece.

It might take an hour of googling “cell phone penetration rates” and “ranking of most corrupt countries” etc. for me to put up a ranked list like a Vegas bookie, but given Tunisia and Egypt as impetus and inspiration, I think that hour might produce a pretty decent gaze into the crystal ball.

Iran (again)? Bahrain? Saudi? Maybe I can find that hour this weeek…
More to come, of that I’m sure.

*Full disclosure – for its first year or two I was a non-believer, if not out and out critic, of Twitter and those who embraced it.  I saw no redeeming value in a service to essentially allow texting the whole world via Web site.  It seemed to me the founders were pandering to the basest and stupidest instincts of millions who felt anyone out there could possibly give a damn about their morning’s decaf latte, their evening’s drunken idiocy or their kitten’s latest ball of string.

I was wrong.

While, by weight and volume of total twitter traffic, I was, and am, still right, there is something more to it. In a world where literally a billion people have a device that can both generate and communicate content and real time event intelligence, Twitter (whatever this particular firm’s future) has shown the more essential future.


If, and where, keeping the world from knowing “what’s really happening” is important to maintaining advantage, power or undeserved legitimacy,  the inability to keep the information genie in the bottle ever, at all, anywhere, is going to catch a whole lot of employers, governments and belief systems up short.

From cults to political parties to hate organizations to repressive regimes, the daylight is coming to shine on you and your beliefs.  If you cant say it out loud and in public without losing support, money or legitimacy, know that your days are numbered.  I think, whether in months or years, the end is nigh, and your doom will come not from jackbooted troops, police SWAT teams or even intrepid reporters, but in the form of the individual with a conscience and the cheap, ubiquitous camera phone.



Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are mine alone, and do not represent the views, policies or positions of Cyveillance, Inc. or its parent, QinetiQ-North America.  I speak here only for myself and no postings made on this blog should be interpreted as communications by, for or on behalf of, Cyveillance (though I may occasionally plug the extremely cool work we do and the fascinating, if occasionally frightening, research we openly publish.)

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