The world as we knew it has completely changed. Facebook, Flickr and Twitter have totally changed our notions of privacy. Wikileaks has opened the eyes of the mass public to the behind the scenes world of politics and business. And mobile phones, with their cameras, recording devices, and cheap (mostly) available 3G bandwidth makes it possible to share ‘everything’ at an instant with ‘everybody’.
The implications of this transparency movement have not been felt yet. In my view, all we have seen is ripples ahead of the Transparency Tsunami. And, like a tsunami, it is an unstoppable, über-powerful force, one that will remodel the entire world as we know it.
Some of the factors that are important to consider when looking at transparency are:
Immediacy – things now move a lot faster. In the past it might take days or months before information spread. After the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, it took many hours before the news reached London and the stock exchange (see the story of how Nathan Rothschild used his agent network to get advance news). Today, the news is spread at mass scale as it is happening.
Mass News – the days of a story being revealed by a single, intrepid journalist are not behind us… but they have been eclipsed by the mass of citizen ‘journalists’ who are able and willing to capture and share snippits of newsworthy activity (and ok, a whole bunch of crap) just as fast or faster than the professionals. This mass effect also helps ultimately to boost the credibility of the press, as the masses can provide corroborative evidence to a key story (e.g. photos taken at the same time from several angles).
Changing Demographics – population trends are driven from the bottom up. It may take a generation (18-20 years) for the effects to fully take hold, but there is an inevitability about the result. In addition, teenage brains do not fully mature until around 23 or 24 years old, and up until this time their brains are much less capable of holding their bodies back from doing what older people might called “silly things”, and much more willing to try things out. In today’s world, the current Gen-Y / Millenials have grown up sharing everything, at practically no cost, with whoever they want. That demographic shift has taken hold and is gradually marching its way up through the older demographic layers.
Everything is Connected – we live in a massively connected world. One might think of a network topology (sorry for pretending to be smart – think of a bunch of dots with lines connecting them together) as being flat. But if we think of a network of people, say an alumni association from a college, each person in the network actually belongs to several networks at the same time (current employer, local charities, etc). This means that information can hop between networks almost effortlessly, allowing transparent information to flow.
The Power of Visuals – the word is a mighty powerful sword, but as we approach mass communication, nothing stimulates our easy-brains more than moving pictures and lovely sounds. The technology in mobile phones gives us previously undreamt of capabilities to capture, and then share at scale content that really does trigger the imagination and spring the events to life. They say “a picture is worth a thousand words”. So what do we have now? A 3 minute video clip of a beating in Egypt, uploaded to the Internet and tweeted out to the world? How many words is that worth?
There is more to this area – I am trying to put into words various strands of research I have been doing over the past three years (OK, I am a bit of a lazy writer, I am more of a practitioner).
For now, I’d like to move on and consider some of the factors that is making it impossible for the Egyptian secret service and police to snuff out the unrest in Egypt.
In praise of Journalists – to restrict the coverage of what is happening, there is a deliberate attempt to target and disrupt international and local journalists from reporting events. This is a spectacularly dumb idea, one they will have to do, but one that fundamentally makes matters worse. It will, in fact, just be sending some of the protagonists to The Hague to face justice – if the local mobs do not get them first.
Journalists report for a living. They watch, they observe, they interpret, and they repackage and share. And if you arrest a journalist, you are probably going to have to set that person free at some point. Right now in Egypt, it looks like a 24-hour detention period is about the standard. But… they still get set free. They still saw things, remembered things, and then are sharing these things.
Seriously, secret police officers – how dumb can you possibly be? Of course you are not dumb, because you do not have a choice but to do it. You have, after all, completely run out of options. But dumb DUMB DUMB!!! Because not only does it not work, but it is going to make your lives a whole ton worse, in the short term, and the medium term (btw I don’t think you will have a long term future – unless you switch sides pronto).
I was inspired by the story from the New York Times about the arrest and subsequent release of two journalists and their driver. This is the kind of story that would have been quashed, ignored, or vanished throughout most of modern history. But today in Egypt we have cells full of well-known international journalists, who were tweeting their whereabouts as they were being arrested, and have masses of people watching from the outside to find out what is going on.
And once they are released, what do they do? Do they curl up in a ball and cry? Maybe yes, but if so, only for a moment. They have a story to get out, a story that can change the minds of thousands.
This transparency, with citizens and professional journalists reporting all the activities of the laughably called “pro-Mubarak supporters” (just call it Secret Police, please – accurate reporting), is going to crack open the regime very quickly in ways that are entirely inevitable. And the same tactics will open up other countries as well.
After all, how can senior Egyptian leaders claim to want to uncover and punish those in the police and the state forces responsible for atrocities be treated anything but ridicule. Those NYT journalists were not held in a Starbucks by anarchist protestors. They were in police and state faciities.
Transparency will make their actions entirely visible, and in all likelihood they will found to have been at the very least complicit in the actions. Most probably, they order the actions and have been lying so long, they are unable to distinguish the truth from reality (it’s a neuroscience thing, something to do with being a psycho- or sociopath)
And it is equally likely that someone in the current regime, someone low down, someone in their twenties, with a brain not quite developed enough to have a good, reliable view of risk, will publish the truth, parts, small ‘moments of transparency’ that will demonstrate to the people and the world that the actions of the senior folk were a total sham. Julian Assange might not be everyone’s idea of a hero or role model, but he is to some people.
So, to finish up. We are looking at a Transparency Tsunami that is rippling close to the world, and will overturn most people’s concepts of the world and potentially living in general. In Egypt we see a mass transparency movement, occurring at speed and scale, that is keeping open the chances of improved lives for the people of Egypt, and the region surrounding it. There are plenty of risks with transparency for sure, but a) who would argue with the rule of ‘be honest’ and b) you can’t stop it anyway, so work out how to live with it asap.