The technology of expression and oppression

As a Navy officer in 1990’s Spain, I was able to experience the paralyzing effects of national strikes first-hand. Even the announcement of a ‘Huelga!’ would send travelers scurrying to agencies to reroute and mitigate the potential challenges. In the absence of information, we found security by steering a wide margin around the area of concern.

Taming the protest

Fast forward twenty years and we’re now awash in information that gives us the ability to walk the virtual edge of consequences without (hopefully) falling in. This week’s planned austerity protests in Europe would have been enough back in the day to cause concern, and therefore disruption, without anything more than a threat.

Today, we have up-to-the-minute data on what to expect. We know what action is planned in each country down to the location and time. What’s a protestor to do when disruption is contained by information? We’ve tamed the protest.

But technology works both ways. We watched in shock as the Arab Spring happened, thanks in large part to cell phones, and social media. We saw it as good. But in the London riots in Summer 2011, “…technology fueled Britain’s first 21st century riot.” It wasn’t expression in that case, it was mass criminal activity. UK residents were ready to crack down on technology and communication even if it limited freedom of expression.

Expression versus control

Finding the boundary between democratic expression and suppression isn’t easy, as we saw in Iran’s successful virtual unplugging of social and cellular technology to shut down dissent after their 2009 elections. Pictures and other information made it out of the country only through the sheer creativity of the people who played cat and mouse with Iran’s ‘tech gestapo’.

The tools of democracy versus the tools of the State. Expression versus Control. We’re struggling to re-normalize as the ability to communicate and censor accelerate at equal pace. After the riots, the UK is in no mood to open up expression, and laws first written in 1930 to protect telephone operators from threats are being applied to arrest individuals for tasteless tweets.

Last Spring, those laws were used to jail a Twitter-using student for two months for posting racist tweets celebrating footballer Maurice Muamba’s on-field heart attack. This is an extreme example, but in the UK, you can be arrested for speech deemed ‘insulting.’ What’s hate speech and what’s just being jerky? As the UK’s Guardian reports,

Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act says a person “is guilty of an offence if he (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.

It becomes pretty clear that this law is very broad and puts many types of speech at risk, but scaling it back isn’t easy either. It ends up in politics and power struggles. Making speech more free challenges the status quo and the organizations that benefit from it. Should the rants of silly teenagers be a permanent record, searchable forever? Schools that have to deal with racist taunts and bullying may think so, but how many of us would want our every word following us forever? This isn’t a simple issue and will continue to ebb and flow as we grow accustomed to the technology that is changing everything.

Definitions will naturally vary from country to country, just as freedom of speech and religious tolerance are dictated by political systems and cultural norms.

Mixed blessings

In many ways, the rapid explosion of social media and its consequences resemble the splitting of the atom almost 70 years ago. Was the result a miracle that now generates electricity for most of Europe? Or was it a death sentence for humanity, with Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) the only restraint against nuclear weapons being deployed?

While the means of instant global communications are certainly benign on the surface, they can spark violence and global changes nevertheless. For now, a similar balance must be maintained in their applications, making the most of the beneficial and restricting the truly dangerous.


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Categories: Social / Collaboration

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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