Beyond the euphoria and uncertainties of the moment, the revolt in Egypt has sparked a debate about how much technology and information matter in a revolutionary context. Some commentators, particularly in TV coverage, have claimed that Twitter, Facebook, and blogs largely drove events in Egypt. This has provoked a strong intellectual backlash—an argument that more traditional forces are what truly deserve credit, from Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunisia to the economic woes of the middle class in Egypt.
It is time to approach the debate in a more level-headed way, because it is not one in which one side is clearly right and the other wrong. Indeed, it is important to place Egypt in the context of the broad, complex, evolving information revolution that is currently transforming world politics. It is a revolution the implications of which we can’t yet fully grasp, but one that is fundamentally transforming the nature of power in the twenty-first century.
Two important power shifts are occurring in this century, as I argue in my book The Future of Power: power transition and power diffusion. Power transition—from dominant states to others—is a familiar historical process, but power diffusion is more novel and, today, more difficult to manage. The problem for all states in today’s global information age is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful governments. Conventional wisdom has always held that the government with the largest military prevails, but, in an information age, it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins. As Egypt shows, soft power becomes a more important part of the mix.
Governments have always worried about the flow and control of information, and the current period is not the first to be strongly affected by dramatic changes in information technology. Gutenberg’s press was important to the origins of the Protestant Reformation. Today, however, a much larger part of the population both within and among countries has access to the power that comes from information.
The current revolution is based on rapid technological advances that have dramatically decreased the cost of creating, finding and transmitting information. Computing power doubled every 18 months for 30 years, and, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, it cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. (If the price of automobiles had fallen as quickly as the price of semiconductors, a car today would cost five dollars.) As recently as the 1980s, phone calls over copper wire could carry only one page of information per second; today, a thin strand of optical fiber can transmit 90,000 volumes in a second. In 1980, a gigabyte of storage occupied a room; now, 200 gigabytes of storage fits in your shirt pocket.
Even more crucial has been the enormous drop in the cost of transmitting information, as it reduces the barriers to entry. As computing power has become cheaper and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones and other portable devices, their decentralizing effects have been dramatic. Power over information is much more widely distributed today than even a few decades ago. Witness the ability of Egyptian (and Tunisian) demonstrators to work around their governments’ efforts to shut down access to the internet, text messaging, and television.
What this means is that world politics is no longer the sole province of governments. Individuals and private organizations, ranging from Wikileaks to corporations to NGOs to terrorists to spontaneous societal movements, are all empowered to play direct roles. The spread of information means that power will be more widely distributed, and informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy. The speed of Internet time means all governments have less control of their agendas. Political leaders enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events, and then must communicate not only with other governments but with civil societies as well. Consider the difficulties the Obama administration had trying to fine tune its responses to Egypt.
But it would be a mistake to “over-learn” the lessons Egypt has taught about information, technology, and power. While, in principle, the information revolution could reduce the power of large states and enhance the power of small states and non-state actors, politics and power are more complex than such technological determinism implies. In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that the new computers and communications would create the central governmental control dramatized in George Orwell’s 1984, and, indeed, authoritarian governments like China, Saudi Arabia, and others have used new technologies to try to control information. Ironically for cyber-utopians, the electronic trails created by social networks like Twitter and Facebook sometimes make the job of the secret police easier. After their initial embarrassment by Twitter in 2009, the Iranian government was able to suppress the green movement in 2010. And, while the “great fire-wall of China” is far from perfect, the government has managed thus far to cope with information flows among the 450 million internet users in the country.
In other words, some aspects of the information revolution help the small, but some help the already large and powerful. Size still matters. While a hacker and a government can both create information and exploit the internet, it matters for many purposes that large governments can deploy tens of thousands of trained people and have vast computing power to crack codes or intrude into other organizations. Even though it is now cheap to disseminate existing information, the collection and production of new information often requires major investment, and, in many competitive situations, new information matters most. Intelligence collection is a good example, and the elaborate Stuxnet worm that disabled Iranian nuclear centrifuges seems to have been a product of governments.
Yet, while governments and large states still have larger resources, thanks to the new power diffusion, the stage on which these entities play is more crowded with information-empowered private actors. How will this all play out? Who will win, and who will lose? As recent events in Egypt and elsewhere have shown, we are only just beginning to comprehend the effects of the information revolution on power in this century.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School.