Recently, I read a Vanity Fair article on Britain’s Prince Charles’ new book on the importance of protecting the planet and his decades long work on preservation and organic farming. I was struck by something he said (to paraphrase), “We think technology is going to save us, which it won’t.” To be sure the information age has opened the doors to myriad discoveries and mini revolution. From sustainable development and International Relations to green energy and global health outcomes, technology has revolutionized 21st century society from individual and collective capabilities to the way we think and act to what is now conceivable. But despite the furor and hope, it does not replace “humanware.”That is human inclination, freedom that mental thing that gives us the impetus to act, to protest, to agitate for whatever social change lights our fire.
In “The Mobile Civil Society,” Castells et all discuss the power of mobile telephony and its ability to bypass traditional mass media and the implications for the new public sphere and to political mobilization and in the larger scheme of things, world politics. Admittedly, the case studies were compelling and thought provoking. The idea that flash mobilization was integral to the removal of a sitting President is pretty heady stuff. And, to be sure President Obama and his campaign team’s understanding and usage of communication technology was a significant factor in his historic victory. Yes, nothing seems to move faster the speed of technology powered by fiber optic cables and quick fingers, but nothing trumps the will of the individual. Yes, people get swept away in group think, doing what’s cool according to the masses (peers, Facebook friends, etc.). But sustaining that belief, the machinations that fuels activism, the impetus that propels you from the couch or Starbucks into a voting booth or to volunteer for a campaign, that fibre that is a necessary ingredient for socio-political change to take place, require more than a mobile phone with unlimited minutes or While Communication technology enables and facilitates, (and even empowers) it is not the galvanizing force that social movements require to effectuate lasting, relevant change. It cannot be sustained or developed without the human drive or belief. Have we forgotten that myriad movements took place before our now ubiquitous, indispensable mobile phones took center stage, many of which our society continues to benefit.
Castells also brings up another valid point that sometimes gets lost in these discussions of what communication technology means for politics, and that is how this plays out in developing nations and lesser developed countries where access and use of mobile telephony is limited at best. This presents a markedly different dynamic. Poor people in many of these countries are often not powerless or voiceless despite their social conditions. The little they have is often given to them by the politicians other classes are fighting to remove from power, because the standards by which political leaders are judged and supported are often vastly different when viewed through the lens of social and economic class. Moreover, the digital divide means that the less fortune must find ways to communicate and that they secure other potent ways to make their voices heard such as satellite news, radio or other independent means that reach a particular demographic, many of whom may not be literate.
Mobile telephone and its ilk are far too new and untested to generalize its political capacity. Yes it transforms and empowers activists and non-state actors and certainly it has pertinent implications but they fall short of giving a complete picture.