Repression just got a little harder. Perhaps, it got a lot harder.
In the wake of the Tunisian unrest, the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak is on the verge of collapsing after thirty-years of almost unchallenged power. Democratic activists in both countries used Twitter, cell phones and the Internet to organize “flash mob” protests. They were soon joined by working class Egyptians. The Mubarak took the extraordinary step of shutting down the Internet and cell phone networks for the entire country.
Even as the local providers were ordered off-line, Egyptians were still able to make calls oversees and use dial-up connections. This suggests it is now impossible to completely deny access to the World Wide Web in a given country. Even if the Government in Cairo had cut the phone lines, A satellite phone would work just as well. The world’s most repressive states and India (Yeah, India! Way to get with the team.) ban or control satellite phones, but trying to stop the smuggling of a one-pound piece of electronics that can be bought on E-Bay for $350 is an exercise in futility.
Now, the world media is running video of anti-protesters, staging assaults on horse-back like Arab Cossacks. This is already being reported as part of an effort by Mubarak to use violence and thuggery to put down the uprising. Foreign reporters are being targeted by pro-Mubarak forces. The state media, which had shown no pictures of the revolution to date, suddenly showed up to broadcast images of the violent clashes that resulted. The message is clear: This is not a peaceful movement, it is anarchy. Violence and obfuscation are the tools of injustice. They go hand in hand.
The Egyptian unrest is the second “Information Uprising.” After a Tunisian man committed an act of self-immolation, the movement in that country was able to topple its government and send its ruler into exile in Saudi Arabia. Revelations by Wikileaks--an organization that exists to disseminate information--led the King of Jordan to dismiss his government this week. Could Tienanmen Square occur again today? If a large, grassroots uprising armed with camera phones, social networking and SMS arose, could China put it down?
Injustice, or rather, justice, is not just the product of scholarly work or political advance or philosophy or religion. It is merely our word for a more fundamental feature of animal life. Evidence supporting the idea of justice being present In other species exists. This is why the need to control information is so critical to repression. Doing something wrong is the easy part. Getting away with it is hard. Just as television cameras and fire hoses in Alabama led to the end of Jim Crow, the information technologies of the twenty-first century will make it much harder to hide bad acts. They give groups of private citizens the power to respond to their government by, for instance, allowing them to disperse in the face of a crackdown at a rally, and then simply reappear once the tanks go home.
The collective quantum of information in the human world today is vast. This makes acts of repression and injustice more difficult to get away with than in the past. Put another way, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of information in the world and the amount of injustice in the world.
Professor Michael Lesk of Rutgers University estimated that the amount of information storage space (disk space) sold annually has increased 300 times between 1990 and 1999. The size of the Internet increase 1000 fold between 1995 and 1997. Moore's Law predicts that the size of the Internet will double every five years. The amount of information available in the world will continue to expand. As it does so, it will become more and more difficult to get away with acts of injustice.