March 29, 2011
So far the explanations have followed one of three rough narratives.
The first one, favored mostly by tech evangelists, is that new social media technologies such as Facebook and Twitter have empowered a new generation of protesters to communicate and coordinate in ways that old-school regimes have trouble stopping. According to this view, technology is an inexorable force for democratization and the enemy of oppressive regimes everywhere.
The second view, favored mostly by skeptics of the first view, is that social media is at best a minor factor in events, and at worst a tool of oppression as much as of liberation. The real driving force behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in this view is the courage and tenacity of ordinary people to defy their rulers.
The final view, somewhere between the other two, is that the real key to change was not ordinary people but rather a few extraordinary people—mostly young, tech-savvy idealists like the Google executive Wael Ghonim—whose behind-the-scenes coordination and leadership were critical to catalyzing the masses.
All these explanations are plausible, and all no doubt contain some element of the truth, but all are ultimately problematic.
Protestors and revolutionaries across the ages have naturally used whatever technologies they could get their hands on, and right now those technologies include social media. But the Leipzig parades that took place over the course of thirteen consecutive Mondays in 1989, and that ultimately brought down the East German government, were every bit as dramatic and unexpected as the protests in Tahrir Square, and managed to succeed in an era before even email or cell phones, let alone Facebook and Twitter. Conversely, the popular uprising in Iran last year was crushed even though protestors had all the technological accoutrements of their Tunisian and Egyptian contemporaries. So whatever the role of technology, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a revolution to succeed.
Neither, unfortunately, is courage. Yes, the people who took to the streets did so in the face of grave risks, and many were imprisoned or even killed for their demands. But there is no reason to think that the people of Egypt or Tunisia or Bahrain or Libya are any more brave or dissatisfied this year than last year, or any more than their Iranian counterparts, for that matter. So although successful revolutionaries need courage, courage cannot explain why things happened when and where they happened, and not in some other time or place.
Nor does it help to point to a small group of “key influencers.” All large social movements start out small, and so by necessity only a few people can be involved at the beginning. After the fact, those people will seem to have been immensely influential, because they did something and then many others did something. But it does not follow that there is anything special about these people, any more than there is anything special about the spark that starts a large forest fire. In another time or place someone with exactly the same attributes could perform exactly the same actions and have no effect whatsoever. Conversely, in another version of history someone with completely different attributes could end up occupying the same role for very different reasons.
In the end, therefore, all these explanations are really just stories. They tell us what happened—or at least a highly simplified view of what happened—but they don’t tell us why it happened. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that we do not know why these things happen when they do, or take the paths that they take.
There are many reasons, but an important one is that individual human choices—whether choices about what cell phone to buy, or whom to vote for, or when to rise up and demand one’s freedom—do not take place in a vacuum. Rather, all of us live and learn and act as individual nodes connected by immensely complex networks of influence, from friends and colleagues, from the media, from political and cultural leaders, and these days from the Web. In recent years my colleagues and I have performed a great deal of research—using mathematical models, computer simulations, and even large-scale experiments—showing that when people base their decisions in part on what other people are deciding, collective outcomes become highly unpredictable.
The dynamics of social revolutions, in other words, recall the famous “butterfly effect” from Chaos theory, a term inspired by the work of meteorologist Edward Lorenz to describe how even the tiniest random fluctuations could over the long run have huge, unexpected effects. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could, weeks later, set off a tornado in Texas.
Unfortunately, the problem with the butterfly effect is that by the time we notice the gathering storm, the butterfly itself has vanished in the mists of history, and its effects have become so intertwined with other potential causes that they simply can’t be isolated in retrospect, no matter how carefully we sift through the available facts.
The stories we come up with to make sense of revolutions, therefore, tell us less about how the world works than about how we would like it work. Cool new technologies acting as a force for good in the world. Ordinary people finding their courage and their voice. A small band of heroes outsmarting the evil dictator and his goons. These are wonderful stories of the sort that we enshrine in fiction and teach to our children. They refresh our sense of wonder in the human spirit and maybe even inspire us to pursue our own dreams. But that doesn’t mean that they help us understand how the world works or help us to predict how it might work in the future.
In ancient times, when thunder and lightning came from the sky, our forebears told each other stories of the gods whose all-too-human travails they invoked to explain what might otherwise have remained frighteningly mysterious. In giving them courage to get up in the morning, these stories no doubt served an important social purpose. But we would not think now that sacrificing a goat to appease the gods was a very effective planning device or displayed any real understanding of nature.
In the same way, if we really want to understand important social phenomena like revolutions, we must see beyond the comforting stories that we tell ourselves and grapple with the complexity of the social world in the same way that science has done so successfully with the natural world. And thanks to the same communication technologies that the protestors themselves are using, social and computer scientists now have access to unprecedented amounts of social network and behavioral data, as well as the ability to run large-scale experiments. They are unlikely to find any simple answers, and possibly a scientific approach to social problems will be less satisfying in some ways than the stories we are used to. But as with all science, the first step to improving our understanding of the world is to admit that we know less than we would like to think.Close