My schedule has become almost impossible, but despite my lack of time, there’s no escaping news of the ominous situation unfolding in Ukraine.
The story so far in 100 words or less: Ukrainians take to the streets to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s decisions on foreign relations, chase him from power and provoke a world crisis as Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to accept the outcome and occupies strategic sites in the country, drawing Western Europe and the US, NATO, into a standoff.
Watching the morning news on Euronews last week, I was struck by how clearly the balance of power has changed. We look on as in country after country people band together in apparently spontaneous demonstrations with far-reaching consequences.
It’s hard to believe it’s just a coincidence that all these uprisings are occurring now. In fact, it seems more likely that some sort of contagion is infecting societies one by one and that technology is a major factor both as a vector of ideological contamination and as a tactical resource that tips the balance by giving everyday people the information they need to coordinate their efforts.
Gladwell was wrong, woefully so.
James Burke is more perceptive. “The hacker always wins,” he said at Strata a few weeks ago.
Attitudes have changed. The once despised hacker has almost become a revered figure in society, a good guy, someone who’s on our side. We have social media and the wisdom of crowds. We have open source, maker culture and the Pirate Party. Somehow they’re all related. Society is changing in response to technological feedback and global connectedness.
We weren’t ready for it.
Are people prepared to use their new power wisely? Are they informed enough to weigh the full consequences of their actions? It doesn’t matter, we have to deal with the outcome in this brave new world.
Here in Switzerland, there is a long tradition of direct democracy. Citizens can express their opinions and influence policy through referendums. All anyone needs is 50,000 signatures to submit the matter to a vote. Recently, in a controversial and polarizing result the people decided to tighten immigration by reinstating quotas on immigrants from Europe. Understandably people are concerned about what’s happening outside our borders and many cast their vote in order to protect jobs, security and a way of life, although it isn’t clear that going back to quotas will have the intended effect.
Despite all the references to uncomprehending voters, we hear that “the people have spoken” and now we must live with their decision.
Watching Euronews report on the leaked recording of a conversation in which the Estonian foreign minister made reference to a source who claimed that snipers who killed Ukrainien protesters and police may have been hired by the opposition, I had the overriding impression that the men who think they are in power are really no longer in control. The charade is over.
The main question now is who can we really trust? Will the wisdom of crowds and hacker culture protect people from treachery and manipulation by those who would instrumentalize discontent for personal gain or power? What happens if the consequences spiral out of control? The very power of connections enabled by technology may lead to our downfall.