The Next Revolutions: Drones Vs. Phones

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It’s been a hell of a week worldwide. Caracas, Venezuela: “What had been a slow-motion unravelling that had stretched out over many years went kinetic all of a sudden.” Kiev, Ukraine: “Dozens dead as protesters regain territory from police.” Bangkok, Thailand: “Four people have been killed and more than 60 injured after a gun battle erupted between police and anti-government protesters.” Sarajevo, Bosnia: “Thousands of protesters took to the streets, setting fire to the presidency building and hurling rocks and stones at police.”

The weird thing is that this is nothing new: just a few more entries in the long list of protests erupting into violent fury around the world. The Arab Spring. Brazil. Turkey.

There have been periods in history when large numbers of people rebelled about the way things were, demanding change — 1848, 1917 or 1968. Today we are experiencing another period of rising outrage and discontent, and some of the largest protests in world history. Our analysis of 843 protest events reflects a steady increase in the overall number of protests every year, from 2006 (59 protests) to mid-2013 (112 protests events in only half a year)

A profile of demonstrators reveals that not only traditional protesters (eg. activists, unions) are demonstrating; on the contrary, middle classes, youth, older persons and other social groups are actively protesting in most countries because of lack of trust and disillusionment with the current political and economic system.

(source (PDF))

What’s going on here? And what happens next?

Researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge have one simple answer to the first question, at least: hunger. Back in 2011 they predicted, based on rising food prices, that social unrest would sweep across the planet by, er, August 2013. OK, they were a little off, and their theory doesn’t explain those countries where food prices have risen without riots — but that does seem to be a significant factor.

I propose that another one is just as important, though: technology. Specifically, social media.

To some extent, social media accelerates protest simply by getting the word out. It’s no longer possible for authoritarian governments to control what their citizens see and hear by clamping their iron fists down on newspapers and television/radio stations, unless they want to shut down the Internet and phone services entirely…and not even tyrants want to time-travel back to the 20th century that badly, unless they absolutely have to. As Mathew Ingram points out in a great post on GigaOm, “For those inside and outside of Ukraine and Venezuela, social media is the only media that matters.”

More subtly, smartphones and social media enable what John Robb named “open source insurgencies,” wherein many small groups work towards a common goal, without formal coordination or organization, while adopting, adapting, and evolving each others’ tactics and strategies on the fly. In Ukraine, for instance:

The crisis in Ukraine has spiralled rapidly out of control outside of the capital, Kiev, as anti-government protesters stormed buildings, seized weapons and staged demonstrations across the western part of the country … Although the protests were initially confined to the capital and west, in recent days they have spread quickly to the largely Russian speaking east, most notably Kharkiv.

Could this conceivably have happened without the Internet and ubiquitous phones? Of course. Can modern technology also be used to intensify and perpetuate government oppression? You bet, and how. But as creepy and Orwellian as modern surveillance states can be, their panopticons become pretty irrelevant when a million angry people are marching on the presidential compound with pitchforks, torches, and Androids in hand.

And it seems painfully obvious that modern technology makes open-source insurgencies orders of magnitude less difficult, and therefore, more likely to happen. Or, as Marc Andreessen recently put it:

Woo-hoo! Techno-democratic utopia! Internet FTW amirite?

…Not so fast.

First of all, ongoing protests and insurgencies against authoritarian governments are one thing; actually winning is quite another. Ask the Syrian rebels. Ask Egypt, which, if you haven’t been paying attention, was not exactly liberated after all in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. A million angry protestors do change the game, but that’s by no means a guarantee of eventual victory.

Second, while technology giveth to the masses today, it will bestow its riches upon the authoritarian thugs in the presidential palaces soon enough. I refer, of course, to tomorrow’s antipersonnel/anti-protest drones.

Have you seen what people are doing with drones of late? It’s pretty awesome. Massive mining drones in the desert. Autonomous farmer drones. Tiny quadrupeds that run at 120mph. Drones that sail around the world. And my favorite thing this week:

until this came along:

All very cool — until you imagine these machines militarized, weaponized, mass-produced by the thousand, and turned on the protestors in Kiev, or elsewhere.

My favorite thing on TechCrunch, not counting my own column — OK, fine, even counting my own column — is John Biggs’s occasional series “Today In Dystopian War Robots That Will Harvest Us For Our Organs.” What can I say, I love black comedy. But it’s always tinged, at least for me, with a little genuine terror — because I have written fiction for a living, so it’s especially easy for me to imagine, in vivid gory detail, exactly what will happen on the day a million angry protestors run up against tomorrow’s tyrant armed with ten thousand military drones and a tiny staff of engineers a la the Syrian Electronic Army.

Hint: it ain’t pretty.

The Internet and smartphones disperse power; but drones concentrate power in the hands of those who control them. It won’t be too many more years before that stark disparity will be all too obvious to anyone and everyone.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons