Middle East, Modern Communications and Chaos Theory

Middle East, Modern Communications and Chaos Theory

The layman’s explanation of chaos theory usually begins with an illustrative example of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas. When I first came across this metaphor I found it highly implausible.  For this reason it was a lot easier to absorb the theory than the metaphor…that is until 2011 and the political upheavals that have swept across the Middle East…

The butterfly in this story (although if Edward Lorenz, the originator of Chaos Theory, was still around he might prefer a Moth as the lead actress) was a local police woman in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia trying to up-hold the local street trading licensing laws and faced with a persistent offender Mohammed Bouazizi…a man at the bottom of the ladder trying to sell vegetables to make a living. Bouazizi, the struggling breadwinner in a family of eight, argued with a policewoman who had taken away his goods and scales. She hurled an insult at him followed by…a slap in the face. That was the 17th December 2010 and a chain of events followed.  We can leap straight to 11th February when the President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak resigned. This is a near perfect metaphor for “chaos theory”; a police-woman slaps the face of a man in Sidi Bouzid and a President falls off his presidential throne 1000 miles away in Cairo 56 days later.

It is perfect since it not only identifies a seemingly inconsequential trigger event (a slap on a face) and tornado like end consequence but its progress was exceptionally well reported by the media. Central to these media reports was the role of Face Book, Twitter and mobile phones. Perhaps under reported was the role also played by broadcasting satellites.

Just exactly what has been the role of the various modern communications technologies and should we all be sharing the universal assumption that the role of the Internet (Face Book and Twitter in particular) in these political events has been a force of enlightenment and therefore a good thing?  Without doubt repressive regimes around the world will be studying this question with some urgency.

These regimes cannot take much comfort from what the authorities tried to do in Egypt and Libya in switching off the various means of communication being used by the protesters. What became immediately clear, at least in the case of Egypt, was that they brought the modern part of their economy to an instant standstill…depending as it does on modern communications. There was nothing the authorities could do about broadcasting satellite news reports that probably played a key role in propagating the success of the protests in Tunisia across national frontiers. In Libya the authorities left the Internet running which is a bit puzzling in the circumstances… unless one takes the cynical view that the regime leaders needed the Internet themselves to maintain their personal portfolio of investments overseas…

Are there any lessons the rest of us can learn about the impact of modern communications on political affairs around the world? The most obvious is the way these various communications tools are multiplying paths of communications, amplifying trends and speeding up events…all potential contributors to chaotic systems. Whether this chaos leads to a better world order is likely to depend critically on whether the enlightened forces for good can react fast enough to the triggered chain of events in order to modulate them for the good.  All those Egyptians who were celebrating in Tahrir Square are depending upon it.


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