The many revolutions happening around the world, from Ramlila Maidan to Tahrir Square, have been, or are being, at least in part fueled and propelled by the technologies we use, especially online social media. And at the same time, governments are imposing restrictions on internet use to limit its use for resistance, such as the Egyptian internet curtailing in response to the Arab Spring. Moreover, quite apart from the use of social media for protest, lies the massive debate of privacy and the erosion of the private space through the overuse of social media. The fact that platforms like facebook and twitter allow for, and even encourage, constant updates on every facet of oneâ€™s life, has led skeptics to claim that the public declaration of so much personal information can and will result in greater governmental control.
This debate, of whether technology is a controlling influence or a liberating influence, is extremely pertinent in these ever more networked times. At the Names not Numbers conference in Mumbai last week, a panel comprised of Aditya Dev Sood, Julia Hobsbawm, Nishant Shah and Dan Lloyd had an hour-long discussion on this topic, where some fascinating insights were offered.
Aditya Dev Sood brought up the issue of trust in relation to the technologies we use, offering the theory that there is, globally, a crisis of trust – where people worldwide are finding that their governments, bureaucracies and institutions have failed them – and which has therefore led to new standards of trust: mutuality, probity, reputation. He went on to propose that â€œthese new standards of trust come from the online, social-mediated networked interactions — being online transforms our understanding of what trust can achieve for us and what kind of trust is necessary for us to interact with the world.â€
Dr. Sood went on to talk about how social media platforms allow for the kind of instant and widespread connectivity that increases collaboration and innovation, resulting in some really creative uses of social media, such as in the Occupy Wall Street protests. It also shows how social media platforms allow people to respond to new developments faster, more creatively and more effectively than traditional institutions – private or public – and bureaucracies.
Dan Lloyd, speaking more on the use of social media in protests, talked about the recent attempt by the Mubarak regime in Egypt to ban all international telecommunications and internet during the protests. The only reason, he said, that the Egyptian government was able to go so far in regulating and restricting the telecommunications networks is because they maintain a monopoly on these networks, especially the international internet gateways. â€œThere are very few countries in the world who would have been able to take these steps, and the number of countries that are maintaining that monopoly control over networks is diminishing rapidly. The number of platforms and networks that people are now able to connect on has expanded so rapidly that it makes it impossible for governments to control what happens and to impose their will through these communications networks.â€
Julia Hobsbawm then redirected the conversation to the more personal ramifications of the heightened connectivity offered by the internet. She spoke of how, though she was overwhelmingly in favor of viewing social media as a liberating influence, there are some unintended consequences of this incredible liberation, such as the fact that sometimes it allows for the public to use its ugly â€˜mob-voice,â€™ there are issues with bullying, the phenomenon of trolling, people are abusive, and you find that women are often more vulnerable to this. Moreover, our lives are coming to be so overly dependent and constantly connected to the telecommunications grid, that we find that there is a growing need to disconnect, to make the time for a â€œtechnology Sabbath.â€
The discussion touched upon several other aspects of the large question of how technology affects both the individual and the public. Listen to the complete podcast here.