Last week, in a surprisingly quick, decisive coup, the authoritarian government of Tunisia was driven out of power. This in itself was surprising, but the other day, the Alexis Madrigal blogged about a group of protesters with an unusual banner. That's right -- Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook is a hero of the jasmine revolution. Alexis reads this as a nod to the role that social networks played in coordinating the resistance, and eventual ouster of Dictator Ben Ali. I think it speaks of something even larger -- especially as the social cloud is joined by the manufacturing cloud.
Up until now, all revolutions, violent or otherwise, hinged around two things: Minds and Matter. Minds were swayed by poets, singers, leaflets, posters -- the proverbial rally cry. The reason that free speech is to important -- and so hard to preserve -- is that speech is the key to the first half of the revolutionary equation.
First print, then radio, television, telephones, and now the internet have worked to amplify the reach and power of speech. Social media and portable devices for hosting its conversations have given revolutionaries an unprecedented ability to coordinate their efforts to bring down regimes. And except in the most extreme cases, these governments are not evolving quickly enough to expect to maintain their hold.
But minds are still only part of the equation. Most oppressive governments worry about the minds a little, but spend the bulk of their efforts on the matter. Revolutions -- especially long, drawn, violent ones -- require things like guns, bombs, spy gear, communication equipment, and vehicles. And matter is easier to control, because moving it around requires, well, moving it around. Matter takes up space, requires trucks, can be locked up, and is generally more visible than information. John Brown was captured trying to seize munitions at Harper's Ferry. The Gunpowder Plot went smoothly until it came to the actual placement of the powder. Rebellions fail because of matter.
So what happens when matter is reduced to information? If governments can't lock down Facebook, how will they keep weapons from precipitating from the manufacturing cloud? It's still a hypothetical question - so far, the only guns and knives available on Thingiverse are Nerf guns and pumpkin carving tools.
But this future is coming. I'm reading Kevin Kelly's excellent book "What Technology Wants" (which will be the subject of another post soon), and a passage about the inevitability of technological development struck me as being valid for this discussion:
"Inevitability is not a flaw. Inevitability makes prediction easier. The better we can forecast, the better we can be prepared for what comes... We can shift the defaults in our laws and public institutions to reflect that coming reality. If, for instance, we realize that everyone's full DNA will be sequenced from birth or before (that is inevitable), then instructing everyone in genetic literacy becomes essential. Each must know the limits to what can and cannot be gleaned from this code..."Some governments have done an amazing job of responding to the growth in power of speech -- enshrining it in constitutions, involving citizens in the conversation, and integrating new communication technologies into the lawmaking process. Others, like Mr. Ben Ali's, have seen the consequences of their ignorance.
The digitization and sharing of matter presents a fresh set of challenges for governments. And they ought to respond not with repression and control (which simply will not work), but by adoption and integration of the technologies. Governments need to become such an integral supporter of the manufacturing cloud that a threat to them would be a threat to it.
A smart government would be filling the cloud with plowshares, instead of waiting, dreading the coming of swords.