The Reed’s law revolution

There has been vehement discussion about the role of IT and the internet in the various revolutions sweeping the Middle East over the last couple of months.

That debate has centered on whether or not social networking tools have triggered, enabled, supported or been irrelevant to those sudden political shruggings-off of generational oppression. Have services such as Twitter or Facebook been germane or critical to the development and progress of those revolutions? There is good evidence that they have been widely used, especially by a generation of well-educated, electronically connected young people for whom the act of whipping out their phone to shoot video of a developing event is almost second nature.

I saw the first powerful evidence of that nature in the London Underground bombings of 2005 when people, traumatized by the events and forced to walk in filth and darkness through the tunnels to the next station, nevertheless recorded the event on their cellphones.

Even more telling were video clips from the recent Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake where people, in real and present danger for their lives, still took out their cellphones and recorded what was happening around them.

And similar events took place throughout the Middle East as recordings of demonstrations were interrupted by police gunfire and people died in front of the lenses. A key difference between now and the past is that official or mainstream commercial media would never show the precise moment of death in deference to audience sensibilities; the connected generation has no such reservation. When a friend has been killed before their eyes, the most powerful and effective thing they can do is show the world exactly how it happened, to share with all of us their own perspective on the event, immediately, without the intervention of the “media.”

The network provides them with the tools to do that, literally from the street beside their dead friend’s body so that it is available to all within moments of its happening — another powerful tool in the hands of ordinary people that was once the domain only of governments and large corporations. When there are thousands of sources posting unedited video and photos in real time, censorship and spin become impossible. We have to make up our own minds based on the evidence we have, and the connected generations are now learning to respond to that raw information directly.

Another powerful shift first made its presence felt in late 2000 when the British government faced petrol tanker drivers who not only went on strike but began to blockade fuel depots to prevent strike-breaking by others. The dilemma for the Blair government was that the whole process was organized virally by text message, and thus there was no effective leadership that could negotiate on behalf of all the drivers — a process that, in the past, had at least allowed the possibility of backroom deals. In 2000 all negotiations had to be conducted via the public media; not a comfortable situation for those used to being able to close the doors and get down to business in a smoke-filled room.

In effect, the tanker drivers created “flash mobs,” a scaled-up version of what my daughter and her friends do on a Friday night after work when they have no actual plan and simply text each other until consensus emerges on the most desirable place for all of them to gather. Similarly, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2002 was started by a few people over coffee with both a deep distrust of the elections and the cellphone numbers of their friends. All they needed was the ability to choose a venue and a suggestion that they all gather at a specific time to express their displeasure. When many thousands of people can invisibly organize to bring themselves together quickly and effectively in a matter of hours, the authorities, used to slower methods of communication and their ability to interfere, disrupt or spread disinformation via publicly owned media, are increasingly failing to influence the process, thus losing control of the situation.

Even in more benign situations such as New Zealand’s recent Christchurch earthquake, the official helping agencies have been occasionally blindsided and outpaced by the community response. Within minutes of the quake, the local students had their Student Volunteer Army Facebook page up and within 24 hours had 10,000 sign-ups, rising to 18,000 within 36 hours, and the next day had teams of people on the streets with wheelbarrows and shovels removing silt, helping distressed, elderly and sick people with necessary tasks. Within hours, another group had set up the Rangiora Earthquake Express to gather, prepare and supply food to the cut off community of New Brighton by private helicopter until the Air Force arrived with their own choppers to take up the load. Both were quickly joined and supported by official bodies, but the impetus for these and many other actions came from the community — enabled by information networks.

So there is a strong case for the effectiveness of the organizational role of networks and ICT in these kinds of events, but, as many have pointed out, there were times in both Egypt and Libya when the internet and local phone traffic effectively closed down. Electronically, people were cut off from one another and yet still the revolutions proceeded and gained pace. Plainly something else was going on, and that is where David Reed and his calculation come in. Reed is one of the founders of the internet, and was instrumental in the development of significant contributions to computer networking.

He is also known for Reed’s law, his assertion that the utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network. The law indicates that if you consider the purpose of the network to be the thing that it does most effectively, then the primary purpose of the internet is to enable people to form groups.

A key to forming a group is discovery; you need first of all to find out there are other people who share your perspective or who agree with you on certain principles. Under repressive regimes, or in cultures where politeness is a highly valued cultural trait, it is all but impossible to discover that your disruptive or radical thoughts are shared by others, in the first case because you cannot trust others not to be informers and in the second because you cannot send clear signals about your beliefs without creating social embarrassment.

With its relative anonymity and its many-to-many connection pattern, the internet routes around those social and political difficulties, and it also hugely expands the scale of the discovery. While you could formerly spend years carefully sounding out a few like-minded people in Egypt or Libya, on Facebook you can discover in a few hours that there are many people like you in and around your community. It also enables people in the diaspora to contribute both knowledge and resources to the process that they cannot in the physical world.

It is theoretically possible for an agent provocateur to try to disrupt the process, but where such an agent can easily do that among ten people, the voice would be lost among 100,000. If agents are outed by even one person in the group, they are outed to all, which substantially changes the risk of doing so.

As I indicated previously, the other part of the puzzle is speed. The internet enables groups to form very rapidly, far faster than any physical system can respond, and in some cases even before such a system can detect the group that exists in its midst.

From that moment on, the territorial powers find themselves on their back foot, and once you have even one large crowd gathered, the need for the electronic connection quickly diminishes, since you can make physical contact with thousands of people and recognize many of them as your colleagues and neighbors. Existing, non-electronic connections can be deployed to move the process forward, even when the network itself is withdrawn. That is the key contribution of information networks to the political revolution engulfing the world at the moment.

Like all truly revolutionary innovations, the IT revolution has taken much longer to reach maturity than its wishful boasters predicted, but when it reached maturity, the effects were vastly more powerful than its detractors assumed. It is nearly 40 years since the development of the internet’s networking protocols and 15 years since we began talking about the IT revolution, but we have had to wait until the tools had sufficiently developed, the connections had become sufficiently reliable, the bandwidth broad enough to accommodate video and the viral spread of information sufficiently natural to a sufficiently large number of connected people in a geographical area.

It looks like we are about there now. The keystone to the structure may well have been the convergence of mobile phone technologies with the internet, driving down the total cost of access — you don’t need to own a computer, have a landline or even rent a house to be connected.

As Tweeter Dan McQuillan recently observed, one contribution of this technology may be that we are at last starting to “unlearn the learned helplessness” of half a century. I’d go further. We have talked about the empowerment of the community through IT, and what we are now seeing is how that actually looks and, like all genuine revolutions, it has teeth and claws.