Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When does technology matter?

There have been a wonderful series of posts at the Monkey Cage by Henry Farrell and John Sides about the alleged role of Twitter, Facebook, cellphones, etc. in the post-election protests in Iran (see here, here, and here). Sides helpfully reminds us that new technology is not always a force for good, pointing to a study of its use in promoting ethnic violence surrounding Kenya's recent presidential elections. But perhaps more importantly, it's hard to say that most of this technology matters at all. Does anyone think that there would not be massive protests in Iran today if Twitter had never been invented?

Media reports tend to be very quick to claim that some new technology has fundamentally reshaped the world. Most of what new technologies do, though, is to modestly change the way we do something that we were already doing. We talked on the phone before the invention of cell phones, but now we can do so more often in more places. We had distant friends before the invention of e-mail; we communicated via long distance telephone and hand written letters. Soldiers went on night patrols before the invention of night vision.

Some of the accounts of Obama's nomination last year focused on his mastery of the use of new media for fundraising and organization. These reports may be accurate. But if the Clinton campaign had paid sufficient attention to the caucus states, or if she hadn't voted to authorize the Iraq War, she might very well be our president today, and we'd regard Obama's campaign the same way we regard Howard Dean's from four years earlier.

My wife and I visited Budapest a few years ago and met with an older cousin of mine name Judit. She told us of how she and her family lived through the Nazi occupation (they weren't Jewish), and then how the they hunkered down in their basements while the Soviet army bombarded the city toward the end of the war. In particular, she mentioned that the remaining German soldiers retreated to the hills of the old city of Buda while the Soviets shelled them from below. Later in our visit, we went on a tour of that old city, and we saw drawings there of a military invasion that had occurred identically hundreds of years earlier. Despite all the advances of military technology, warfare had remained fundamentally the same.

So when has technology fundamentally changed something? In the military world, I'll buy that nuclear weapons, particularly those aboard submarines, have fundamentally changed the concept of deterrence. GPS now allows for dramatically more precise bombing and even air cover on cloudy days. In political campaigns, television has caused a fundamental shift in how candidates campaign, and has possibly changed which sorts of candidates we now deem acceptable for office.

But what else? Can we point to anything in modern politics that simply would not have happened were it not for new technologies?

1 comment:

Lidzville said...

In 1994, I was in a news office that was receiving regular faxes from a doctor in Rwanda during the genocide. That wasn't an easy place to get a call out of. But that information got out and published. Four years later, I was in a place experiencing some drastic events, and the internet went down a lot with the electricity, but the phones still worked. Today, they've shut down cell phones in Iran. Communication is less reliable the more channels there are, in my experience. It's very strange.