Wasn’t technology supposed to change the world in which we live? A few years ago, I bought a book that said there would be a democratic revolution in our world that would be brought about by digital technology; aspirations for freedom, transparency and democracy would be fulfilled through access to the Internet, to email, to mobile phones. It all seemed straightforward, stories could no longer be suppressed, news would be carried instantly around the world; even the humblest mobile phone with a camera could be used as a tool to reveal the truth to the world – and the world would respond. The weakness in the argument was the assumption that the world would respond, that people would care about revelations from faraway and foreign places.
Since the weekend the BBC website has carried news of street protests in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. The president is proposing to defy the constitution and stand for a third term of office; he does not wish to relinquish power. His intention has brought street protests that have met with a violent response. If technology was to have a revolutionary impact, shouldn’t the online reporting by the BBC, one of the most respected of the world’s news agencies, have persuaded the president that his behaviour was being reported and that he should heed international calls to respect the constitution?
But why would words and images on a website have any impact on a politician who need care nothing about what is said online? Few of the people in his country are ever likely to see the BBC news and those of us watching from far away are powerless to do anything.
What were the other things that were going to change the world? Email? Mobile phones? Yesterday, a friend in Bujumbura messaged via one of the webmail sites; the news was not encouraging. This evening, I phoned him on his mobile. He had taken his family to a place of safety; he had remained in the family home to guard against intruders. The electricity was off, the food supplies were running low.
In the brave new digital world, this was not meant to be the way of things. Universal access to the full facts of every situation was meant to create a world where the truth would bring a swift response from the international community. However, the prospect of stories and images being shared around the globe did nothing to inhibit Vladimir Putin, though perhaps the explanation in his case was that he was big enough to simply ignore opinion. But neither has the digital world inhibited the president of one of the poorest countries on Earth, for he knows those who watch online can do nothing.
Old fashioned power politics are the only ones that really make a difference; economic and military power is the only sort that troubles dictators, whether they be actual or aspirant. Cut off the supply of money or put soldiers’ feet on the ground, and there might be a response. As for the digitized revolution, it was a nice idea.