Social networking and changing politics
It was predictable that social networking would be used in coordination of the recent riots, and thankfully also the clean-up. Of course it was. People will use whatever tools are available to communicate with each other - notched sticks, smoke signals, clay tablets, or any other medium. You may be able to switch off a network but you can't stop people communicating with each other.
Now it is all over except the arguing, one thing is conspicuously missing from the discussion so far and that is the potential for future progress of electronically mediated politics. Politics just moved into its next phase.
The 'Arab Spring' and the UK riots could be seen as the second stage of awareness of the political potential of the web, the first being the simple use of Facebook or Twitter in electoral campaigning. It doesn't matter that our riots were not political, they still made people very aware of the power available to them now.
We have a very panicky government and police force now, with discussions about the pros and cons of allowing the networks to be turned off whenever it suits. On the other hand, we also have global awareness of the power of everyday networking tools to mobilise political pressure.
That awareness can't be removed, even if specific networks can still be disabled by governments. The birth of the true cyber-community isn't far away. As the population watches geo-government threatening to oppress and restrict, the next big things are being plotted and the tools forged.There is now a proven market for political tools that use electronic media.
At first, simple political capability will remain inherent in existing social technology, but we may well see new companies and tools designed to capitalise on the desire to engage in political activity.
As well as new websites and features, there will be more smart-phone apps, and even hardware devices that communicate directly with one another, though governments may try to block such capability now after that capability on blackberries was used to demonstrably good effect.
We will also see the further development of tools to bypass blockages and ensure anonymity. Such tools exist already but are not well known by most people. If government wanted to expedite their development, they couldn't have done much better than to threaten to switch off Facebook and Twitter or to impose such firm punishments on instigators for being traceable. But they made exactly those errors, and will pay the price.
The potential of cyber-communities has been known since the early 1990s. They have remained largely theoretical entities since then, waiting for culture and technology to catch up. Well, it almost has now. When something reaches critical mass, it tends to accelerate to saturation fairly quickly, in a classic S-Curve.
I think it is safe to say that the political use of both the social web and smart-phones have both now reached that critical mass so now we will move onto the rapid growth stage. It will not be very long before a range of e-leaders start emerging.
Political vacuum can't last long. Each niche will have its own leaders, as it always has, but the new generation will be skilled at wielding power through whatever new tools emerge.
Although some of the progress will be in apps and website features, the hardware market will be particularly interesting to watch. Mobiles normally use the mobile networks or wireless LANs to communicate, but are now being fitted with near-field comms, NFC, which only works across a few centimetres.
Even if the design of those particular phones doesn't support it, NFC technology presents an opportunity for direct device-device transfers for people passing in the street, even if networks are disabled. Longer range blue-tooth or even ultrasonic devices could do the same at greater distance, and doubtless new mechanisms will emerge over the next few years.
Information could be spread organically among people passing randomly in the streets and yet spread quickly across a large region. It would be hard for government to prevent such communication, even if they could switch off all other kinds of nets.
They may want instead to try to block such capability, but if they were to try, they would have to force manufacturers with global markets to prevent their devices from coming into ours. Just as we are already dependent on the net, and government can't switch off access to the internet without stopping the whole country working, so it won't be long before these other kinds of capability are just as woven into our everyday lives.
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