Global Groundswell: Mad as Hell

In Israel, a social movement aimed at income inequality and housing prices has sprung up from a youth Facebook protest. Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a trip, hoping to nip the protest in the bud. Speculation arises that Israel's left, long neutralized amid concerns for security first, may be in resurgence.

In Japan, a woman on a farm confronts the lackadaisical government response to radiation by conducting tests of her own – to discover that some levels are as high as those surrounding Chernobyl. She is joined by an expert who has quit the official government effort in which he has lost faith to get his own answers and help those willing to help themselves.

In Syria, a protester observing the government's murderous crackdown on dissidents, dismisses the latest brutal violence as “stupid” and points out that government forces, already suffering desertions, “cannot occupy the entire country.”

These are just a few examples of grassroots reactions around the world to governments that appear out of touch with or indifferent to the lives of the people – and the people are not standing for it anymore. They are standing up. And in so doing, they are able to leverage the Internet to discover important truths, publicize their efforts, reveal the tyranny or venality of the opposition and draw those of like mind into efforts of resistance and change.

Much is being written about the “Arab Spring” and now the “China Spring,” as populist protests arise in the face of determined state controls. At one time, it was axiomatic that certain regimes – Saudi Arabia notable among them – were impervious to disruption from underneath. But here the notion of possible futures is limited by metaphor. If you think about existing government structures as a pyramid, a small top is supported by an enormous bottom and the weight of the structure from the top down seems to keep it inevitably in place.

In the world of the Internet, however, information becomes a universal solvent able to dissolve organizational power structures. We now are hearing more and more about “the cloud.” This is the state of things changing from solid through liquid to gas. The Internet has come from things that were solid in the past (bricks and mortar and wire) and gone through fluid – the mediated flow of ideas – into thin air (wireless). A rapidly increasing number of free hotspots for wireless Internet signals only one element in the shifting power arrangements in the world. The spread of smart phones into ever lower echelons of society will bring new waves of awareness and reactions to the conditions that exist – and pose new challenges to those responsible.

An intellectual property expert at a film festival I attended not long ago in Nassau noted, “The good news about the New Information Economy is that you can do it all. The bad news is that you have to do it all.” He meant that technology and networks now allow an individual to create, produce, publicize and market a product or an idea, but this also requires direct involvement in every stage of the effort. And it does not replace the bricks-and-mortar necessity of being physically present in the right place in the right way at the right time and integrating those realities with the virtual. It also suggests a world in which rapid collaboration can occur around an idea faster than at any time in history. And this will make for volatile politics. This should be contemplated by regimes that have lasted this long without attending to the fundamental needs of people – jobs, education, health, opportunity.

Where the governments are failing to “do it all” – and it seems increasingly that all governments are – people are rising up with unprecedented power to do more – if not all – for themselves. As Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich was quoted saying about Israel's nascent movement, “This was a landmark event. The norms that have been accepted in the past will not be in the future.”

If he is right, the world is still in the early days of a fundamental power shift – toward the bottom of the pyramid – and the turbulence to come in the next decade will be a subject of surprise, if not “shock and awe” to many who thought their positions secure. It is not too much to imagine this will involve the United States, where many are now fed up with its intransigent if not incompetent government.