Essays, Analyses and Meditations

Back to my essays | Back to the Philosophy pages | Author

Smartphones Killed Revolutions

  • Since the invention of the printing press, printed material has been used to start rebellions.
  • Until the invention of the mobile phone, it was printed material (letters, posters, magazines, mimeographs) that spread revolutionary ideas.
  • Printed media had two important properties: 1. they were not real-time media; 2. they circulated slowly (frequently transported on foot); 3. they could not be amended until the next print (frequently contained false news).
  • Before the invention of the mobile phone, riots spread by word of mouth.
  • Word of mouth spread quickly but not instantaneously.
  • Word of mouth was wildly unreliable.
  • When students rioted in Europe in the late 1960s and 1970s, each school was receiving very confused news about what was happening in the other schools. Someone would have had to physically walk there in order to find out.
  • The inability to communicate in real time contributed to galvanize students: school X would think that the other schools were on fire when in fact they weren't, and that would start a riot in school X; on the other hand other schools would learn that school X was on fire but in wildly exaggerated terms and start their own fire.
  • This has probably always been the way riots spread to become revolutions.
  • Something similar happened during the French and Russian revolution: inaccurate word of mouth that greatly exaggerated the events contributed to increase the motivation of the protesters to match those exaggerated news with their own deeds.
  • The greatest motivating factor is the killing of fellow protesters a fact that is routinely exaggerated and sometimes invented altogether by word-of-mouth communication.
  • The lack of real-time and accurate communication was crucial in generating the momentum for revolutions.
  • Television and radio news were more reliable sources of information but they were slowed down by the fact that the news were broadcast only at specific hours of the day (basically, when the riot had already ballooned) and depended on finding reliable eyewitnesses.
  • Television and radio were controlled by governments and corporations. Printed media were the propaganda tools of populist movements. Mobile phones replaced that propaganda with group discussions, and therefore reduced the ideological underpinning of mass protests.
  • The real-time communications introduced by the mobile phone is making riots less likely precisely because it allows each group of people to know what the other groups are doing in real time and with relative accuracy.
  • And the group discussions introduced by the mobile phone is reducing the ideological motivation to riot.
  • The exaggerations are vital in creating momentum, and real-time communications tend to be not too exaggerated, and group discussions tend to dilute the anger.
  • The mobile phone is a powerful tool in getting crowds to self-organize, but it is also a powerful tool for crowds to self-restrain.
  • Protests are unlikely to escalate (in both violence and size) when each group knows what the other groups are doing.
  • Mobile phones "organize" crowds. Word of mouth "disorganizes" crowds. The initial effect is the same: creating a crowd. But one is rational, whether the other one is irrational. The rational crowd is restrained by its very rationality, unlike gossip that travels from place to place getting distorted and amplified at each stop.
  • Real-time accurate information tends to dampen the mood of a crowd. Typically, the more accurate the information is the less exciting the protest is.