12 February 2011

Techno-Democracy: and After?

At last - let us pray and hope - freedom for Egypt, after 30 years of Saudi oil-induced paralysis. (Yes, oil-induced. Call me naive, or worse, prejudiced; but somehow I don't think Israeli security concerns were by any means the biggest factor behind our US complicity in Cairo's political deep-freeze. If anything, arguably the Saudis got the best of the bargain with Mubarak's Egypt: a neighboring regime, situated at the beating heart of the Arab world, that combined rigid political stasis with a considerable tolerance - verging [for all the torture] occasionally on appeasement? - of some of the region's most radically dynamic religious elements. Or at least radically Wahhabi religious elements. And in this regard I believe Egypt was exceptional if not unique among secular Arab regimes. Certainly I'm aware of no comparable Zawahiris - much less Muhammad Attas - having come out of either Assad's Syria or Hussein's Iraq.)

One thing at any rate seems obvious to me. Egyptians from all walks of life would be best-advised to proceed into the Future with the utmost caution. And not just for the next couple of years either. Something tells me our present era of global high-speed change may not, even in the greater long run, prove quite as favorable to participatory democracy as some of our WikiLeakers and others might hope. For one thing, a speeding tour bus is scarcely the kind most likely to afford much freedom to passengers wishing to discuss alternate travel routes. Besides placing prodigious - if not terrifying - amounts of discretion in the hands of the bus driver. And the fact that revolutions, in any age, have always been difficult vehicles to adjust to a safe speed does not exactly bode well for "democratic" revolution in the Internet Era.

Think about it. Why should we expect our present age - in which new forms of virtual reality are being conceived (if not birthed) every few minutes - to be any kinder to revolutions than, say, the French 1790s, or the Russian 1910s? Might not such an age as ours merely accelerate the pace of revolution, to say nothing of intensifying the anger and vehemence of accompanying political polarization? And mostly because, unlike in earlier periods of upheaval, the great majority of us need never have to face off in the street. Imagine a world in which an exploding number of virtual interactions leaves participants - much like today's drone pilots - more and more detached from, more and more cushioned against what would otherwise be the "direct" physical and emotional repercussions of their acts. In a political atmosphere already well-heated, are we likely to become "virtually" more polite and considerate with each other in these circumstances, or "virtually" more derisive and insulting and even belligerent? Remember, there's nothing like combat from a safe distance - even when the safety is mutual - to make a fellow wild and extravagant in his choice of weapons. But now suppose things were to get really unpleasant. Picture a world full of arguments erupting out of nowhere from within the safety of our electronic cocoons, and people hurting and being hurt as never before, simply because now we can wound with relative impunity. And then imagine that same acrimony's residue spilling back into our physical spaces. After all, we may not be able to "strike back" at a virtual opponent in all the ways we'd like, but what about the unfortunate slobs we live with? In a world virtually interactive "on all levels," as it were, does anyone imagine we'll have lost the fine art of "taking things out" on our nearest and dearest? And in such a highly-charged atmosphere, is it reasonable to expect that a Virtual Age revolution will be any less devouring of its children than others we've known? That is to say, any less cruel to each one of us?

Those, however, are merely the extremes of incivility and rancor I can imagine engulfing our lives outside organizations - i.e., our lives within and between our so-called private or domestic spaces. Meanwhile, inside our organizations, I fear the sheer headlong pace of the age is most likely to make us all either dogmatists or sycophants. If not some highly unpleasant mixture of both. And not least in our conference rooms, where the worst terror may be that of not seeming to be a team player. Or of standing in the way of Change. For my part I can't imagine a comparable period - in the lives of any of us Westerners - when people of every credential and qualification were more afraid to ask questions, more reluctant to voice concerns over the direction, route and speed of the bus, more anxious to "get on board" any way they can, more terrified of being left behind the frantic pace of global transformation.

And again, that sort of pressure - even in a seasoned democracy like our own - hardly makes for an atmosphere of free, relaxed and lively discussion of alternative options and possibilities for the Future. If anything I would think it tends to produce precisely the opposite effect. My own best hunch is that the more furious the speed of change, and the greater the number of people of whom adjustment is - do you hear me? - immediately required, the harder it will become, and the more irrelevant and impertinent it will appear, even to dream of questioning a prescribed change's direction. After all, why rock the boat? Why dispute the superhuman wisdom of our busy globe-enriching, globe-transforming organizations? Haven't their cumulative efforts already produced enough sheer momentum for economic success - 2008 was just a blip, you know - to satisfy six generations' worth of demands for Unbroken Progress? And isn't economic success the key to any freedom-loving, human dignity-respecting democracy? Just ask Beijing. Meanwhile, should every other disincentive to dissent fail, remember, it could be nothing less than your job that's on the line. So if you plan to keep it, in future kindly refrain from comment, and be sure to resume at once your missing cheese search.

And the result, I think, will be exactly the kind of techno-political climate most favorable to the growth of a certain kind of freedom. Maybe not more freedom for us everyday peons, but surely greater license and leverage than ever before for the "people" who matter most in today's world - i.e., for our most pushy, sharp-elbowed, get-what-I-need-anyway-I-can global organizations. In sum, just the sort of hyper-urgent, "progressive" techno-authoritarianism best able to cut short the life, not only of a fledgeling Egyptian democracy, but of God knows how many Western varieties as well.

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