Savir's Corner: Information revolution and civil society

After Guttenberg print revolution, information, mainly through newspapers, books, became widely distributed, people more informed.

online news_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
online news_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
After the Guttenberg print revolution, information, mainly through newspapers and books, became widely distributed, people were more informed and better educated and fundamental social changes occurred, with political and industrial revolution following suit.
A similar and possibly no less dramatic process is occurring with the information revolution, fueled by the technological revolution, since the end of the previous century.
If at the end of 19th century, an edition of The Times of London could be distributed in several thousands of copies for a population of eight million, in today’s world any individual, in virtually any part of the world, can post a short video on YouTube. This can be on any possible topic, from a baby crawling on the floor to an athlete breaking records, and there is always the possibility that millions, and perhaps tens of millions will view it.
In today’s world, there is an information glut that serves people’s know-how, understanding, education and communication, as well as their ability to share values, interests and activities and possibly to effect change. I believe that we live in a fundamentally revolutionary era, still too little comprehended – in terms of the phenomenon itself and chiefly regarding its social, economic and political ramifications. Fundamental social change is occurring in all corners of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa. The attempt to understand its background, its motion and its possible results and how they can be influenced, seems important.
The Internet covers almost 50 percent of the world’s population today. This leads to more information, more communication and the empowerment of people and their ability to effect change.
These processes carry with them dangers as well as opportunities. As to the dangers, many argue that the endless flow of information is creating an anarchic world that is almost impossible to govern and that ultimately may lead to chaos, violence and conflict. Others argue that the information revolution serves mostly the wealthy champions of industry, as they have greater capacity to profit from new information available, intruding into the private domain and creating a new global customer base. In the developing world there are those who are concerned by the process, viewing it as a Western culture of domination through economic interests and the icons of globalization such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
There is some value to all these arguments, but the information revolution also gives rise to powerful opportunity.
1. The process of globalization has been dramatically furthered. The globalization of information may be more important than the globalization of commerce, as it affects more profoundly people’s thoughts. The penetration of the Internet is transforming the world. Today almost every second person uses the Internet, including 86% of the United States, 63% of Europe and 37% of the Middle East – a growth of some 530% in a decade. We are nearing an era in which the majority of almost 10 billion people will be able to communicate and interconnect with one another. This creates new opportunities to create global communities of shared interests and values.
2. Parallel to this process there is also a change for the individual, related to how people get to know each other. The “other,” the “distant,” the “incomprehensible,” are suddenly much closer – and to everyone’s surprise, not that different.
Knowing, sharing information and communicating with others has made the perception of the “other” much more human. This has potential for contributing to greater tolerance. Facebook, with an enormous community of almost one billion users the world over, has had an important impact on these processes. Due to the “Zuckerberg Revolution,” people everywhere are contributing to the creation of a more transparent world. Sharing personal information on their Facebook timelines, making Facebook friends across borders and creating communities of similar interests and values in order to effect change in their favor are all a part of this phenomenon.
3. The multi-culturalization of the world. As literature, film, music and all aspects of arts, entertainment and sports are shared world-wide, greater cultural understanding is produced – from African music to Madonna, and from Japanese sumo wrestling to Argentine soccer.
4. The globalization of education due to the use of the Internet. The classroom has moved to a large degree to the playroom, where young minds profit from educational software. This is very true for higher education as well, where millions of students are reached through distance learning. In the not-too-distant future, the university classroom in many institutions around the world will grow from less than 100 students to more than 100,000, as exemplified by the Stanford University courses on Udacity and the Coursera technological platform, wherein people the world over are privy to the best higher education available.
COMBINED, THESE new opportunities create the true great opportunity of the information revolution, despite its dangers and flaws: the opportunity to create social change. We have witnessed the manifestations of social justice movements across the globe, from Occupy Wall Street to the French “Time of Outrage” movement to Israel’s protests last summer. We have witnessed this much more dramatically with the Arab Spring, in which young, informed people communicated, mobilized and toppled four dictators thus far in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, with Syria next in line.
These transformations are not all for the good, but they hold tremendous opportunity for positive change as governments, inflated bureaucracies and even armies have become less relevant. To create these opportunities for positive social change, we have to not only understand the processes outlined here, but also to attempt to channel them toward greater democracy, socio-economic development and equality, and peaceful coexistence.
The processes that result from the information revolution cannot be governed. They emanate from people, for people, and governments – even totalitarian ones – find it hard to stand in their way. As these are social processes, they have to be contended with by society itself, in the form of civil society – the vast network of nongovernmental organizations that are based chiefly on the values and the power of the citizen.
Civil societies and their NGOs can contribute to greater local and global communication between communities that share values, furthering the creation of a common language within societies and between them; greater multicultural interaction; and greater empowerment of youth and women.
The globalization of education should have a large part in this process.
It is true that these processes may at times be hijacked by forces with negative social intentions, specifically religious ones. But if civil society and young new leaders are alert enough to the results of the information revolution, they can channel these opportunities toward positive social change locally and internationally.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it is to be hoped that with time, maybe even a lot of time, elements of civil society in our region will ride the wave of the powerful information revolution, furthering social justice, democracy and peace. This should be true not just for the Middle East but for Israel specifically as well. It is for our vibrant civil society to channel the communication and education process in which young Israelis are so involved, away from traditional political interests of a static, self-serving and inflated establishment, into a dynamic cross-border process in favor of greater social justice, more liberal and democratic values, and peaceful coexistence based on equality.
The information revolution provides us with this opportunity.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.