Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Revolutions and Technologies

To listen to some people, we need to thank Twitter and Facebook for the current Arab Revolutions. Do the commentators seriously think that people have never revolted before? Or that revolution has never before spread like wildfire? Such a belief is a sad indication of historical myopia.

1848 Revolution in Berlin
Throughout modern history political revolutions tend to occur in batches. Few revolutions are ever left to develop on their own, within neatly defined state borders. In 1848, “The Year of Revolution” as it is called by historians, the first uprising began in January in Sicily, which lay at the time within the Kingdom of Naples. Within a month revolution had broken out in Paris and, like Mubarak, the King fled. Within another month revolution had burst upon Vienna, forcing Europe’s most influential leader, Klaus von Metternich, to flee into exile. Within days the Austrians were facing revolutions in Milan and Prague. The revolutions in Budapest and Venice turned into full-scale wars, the former involving hundreds of thousands of troops and ending with intervention by the Russian army. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia attacked Austria, not once but twice, in an attempted “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of the Lombardian revolutionaries. They were beaten on both occasions. Eventually revolutions covered nearly every state in Europe, helped by the first widespread use of the telegraph, as well as steam-driven printing presses, which brought to the reading public newspapers and broadsheets that could be updated in multiple editions daily.

1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire
 By the early 20th century revolution had gone global. A failed revolution rocked the Russian Empire in 1905, and the Ottoman Empire was overthrown three years later, while the Chinese revolution in 1912 ended an empire that had lasted over two thousand years. In 1917 the Russian Romanovs were finally toppled and the successful Communist Revolution in Russia was followed within a year or two by revolutions in Bavaria, Berlin, Austria, Hungary as well as a war of independence in Ireland. The spread of these revolutions was helped by the electric printing press and the telephone, as well as a telegraph system that now could send messages around the world instantly.

1989 Revolution in Berlin
 Finally, 1989 saw the world’s first revolutions to be broadcast on television and radio. Beginning in Poland, radical change engulfed the entire Eastern half of the European continent and governments were toppled in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Albania. Only in Romania did the revolution turn violent, but by December this regime had fallen too. Within a couple of years further changes had come to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia itself, while a war had been ignited across Yugoslavia. The stirrings of change inspired people in Burma and China in 1989, but these revolutions ended in bloody victories for the reactionaries. Television and radio, like I said, brought news of these changes into living rooms, feeding a chain reaction, but the telephone too allowed the transmission of news, directly, from person to person. I remember being with an East German friend in the Netherlands as her mother gave her a blow by blow account of a massive demonstration in Dresden in November 1989.

2010 Revolution in Tunisia
The Internet has further fragmented the sources of our information. Using Twitter you can collect hundreds of bites of information from disparate sources as events unfold. But all of these revolutions -1848, 1905-1919, 1989 and 2010-11 - stem from a variety of causes, like economic stagnation, unresponsive governments that have failed to reform, foreign rule and a lack of human rights. And all of these revolutions, not just the current Arab Revolts, have been helped by forms of technological communication.

Article first published as Revolutions and Technology on Technorati.

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