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[liberationtech] Peter Theil On Arab spring

Zack Brisson zack at
Mon Jul 23 15:15:12 PDT 2012

Thanks to everyone on the list for continuously providing interesting
fodder for discussion.

This is a fascinating debate with many interesting perspectives. I would
like to respectfully submit an additional argument that places the impact
of technology in the context of systemic dynamics within the communities
under discussion.

This theory was explored in the introduction to an assessment of the impact
of ICTs on Tunisia's post revolutionary development conducted for the World
Bank. Unfortunately the full essay isn't in a web friendly format, but
publication PDF can be found here. <>

For those who would prefer not to download the PDF, I have also pulled out
the essay at the end of this email.

Thanks for the lively discussion.


<Begin quote>

The year 2011 was marked by profound changes to the relationships between
governments and their citizens. Popular uprisings launched in the Middle
East and North Africa region spread  to an estimated 16 countries and
captured the attention of the entire world. While the success  of these
uprisings has been varied, the overall trend points toward fundamental and
sweeping changes to the systems, structures, and frameworks we depend on to
govern ourselves.

What guidance can developments in a small country like Tunisia provide
about these worldwide shifts? The English cybernetics pioneer W. Ross Ashby
might offer the “law of requisite variety.” Introduced in 1956, the law of
requisite variety states that, for any system to achieve stability, the
controlling mechanism must be at least as complex as the governed body. In
Ashby’s words, “Only variety can destroy variety.”

Take, for example, computer security. A hacker can use a wide variety of
methods to infiltrate a computer system; thus, a computer security
specialist’s available protection measures must at least match that variety
in order to effectively address the potential infiltration methods. As a
hacker’s menu of methods continues to expand, so too must the security
specialist’s menu of responses. A failure of the security specialist to
diversify will result in a compromised system.

The law of requisite variety has been manifested in biological, chemical,
and computational scenarios. Today, it is guiding the social shifts that
are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. If a
system increases in complexity to the point that it has greater variety
than its controlling mechanism—whether it is a computer hacker facing a
security specialist or a population subject to government regulation—then a
phase change must occur. If the controlling mechanism does not become more
complex, systemic regulation will fail.

Tunisia is a clear and coherent example of how an increasingly complex
society contributed to the failure of an authoritarian government to
maintain control. During more than 20 years of leadership under President
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian governing body was powerful and
pervasive, but it was also largely static in nature. Ensconced in a robust
grid of personal power networks, the ruling elite had little incentive to
evolve its patterns of behavior and control.

Simultaneously, a broader change occurred among the Tunisian populace
through the spread of information and communication technology (ICT).
Satellite televisions, first introduced in the early 1990s, increased
citizen awareness of social, political, and economic conditions elsewhere
in the world—and of the inequality at home. Mobile networks, expanding
exponentially in penetration since the late 1990s, increased connectedness
among a population that had been somewhat atomized by distance and levels
of educational attainment, as well as by communal, regional, and cultural
rifts. The Internet, when it first exploded among Tunisian consumers in the
early 2000s, allowed for widespread exposure to foreign ideas; it also
offered a platform for a digital public square that had more variety than
the government could easily control.

As a result, the Tunisian populace in 2011 was more connected—more
complex—than when the Ben Ali government first came to power. Connectivity
expanded awareness of economic inequality and increased levels of popular
frustration; it also strengthened citizens’ ability to organize and
demonstrate. In many ways, the governing elite did not evolve in response
to these changes; the structures, tools, and processes of governance
adapted to new ICTs slowly and with difficulty.

Thus, when a fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire, he incited a
phase change that was unexpected, but long in development. The rapid pace
of the shifts that occurred during the Tunisian revolution proved how
powerful increased connections among a society can be. The response of the
Ben Ali government—delayed, disconnected from the populace, and
ineffectual—showed the extent to which it had failed to develop along with
its society; it also showed how old forms of control can fail when faced
with greater variety.

A photo from early January 2011 vividly demonstrates this point: In a
delayed attempt to quiet the demonstrations, President Ben Ali visited the
hospital where Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose self-immolation
incited the revolution, was receiving treatment. The government released a
photograph of Ben Ali at Bouazizi’s bedside—an old-fashioned attempt at
propaganda. In this respect, the photograph is a spectacular failure.
Bouazizi, bandaged beyond recognition, is unmoved by Ben Ali’s visit; Ben
Ali looks equally unmoved. The most powerful emotion visible in the
photograph is contempt: three hospital staff, their arms folded, stand
watching Ben Ali, their faces set in deep disapproval.

While the government once may have successfully used such a photograph to
reassert control, now, in the face of the Tunisian people’s evolution and
greater connectedness, the photograph serves instead as proof of the phase
change occurring at that very moment: even those in the personal presence
of Ben Ali are unconvinced of his control. Days later, Ben Ali would leave
the country in exile.

Today, Tunisians are wrestling with how to wield the power of their
increased connectivity to build a society that is more responsive to the
needs of citizens and more capable of addressing the economic, political,
and technological complexities of the modern world. The ability of the
newly formed government to provide health care, economic development,
justice processes, and other services demanded by its people will depend on
its ability to match their variety and connectedness. The opportunities and
setbacks faced by the new government, and its success in addressing them,
will tell us much about the future of governance in a world that grows more
complex every day.

The desire to understand the path Tunisians face and the role ICTs play in
their past and future, led infoDev to commission this research. At Reboot,
we were eager to explore the repercussions of these recent, rapid changes
to the structures, systems, and frameworks of governance. Although the
world’s increasing complexity can be challenging to manage, we believe that
it empowers citizens in a way that has the potential to lead to a more
just, equitable, and inclusive global society. We are excited to share
evidence of this with policymakers, while identifying opportunities for
sound investments to further encourage social progress.

We hope the findings in this publication do justice to the experiences and
perspectives that so many Tunisians were willing to share with our team. We
are grateful for their willingness to let a group of outsiders into the
transformative period that is undoubtedly their own, but equally important
for the world.

Zack Brisson & Kate Krontiris


February 20, 2012

On Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 6:00 PM, Doug Schuler <
douglas at> wrote:

> I'd add strategic capacity, planning, dedication, imagination, hope,
> agency, etc. of the protagonists of the struggles. This is the "civic
> intelligence" that is often lost (imo) when social struggles are described
> without giving due credit to the people who are struggling towards the
> change.  (This often happens when words such  as opportunity, technology,
> resource mobilization, etc. are used to depict activism.) It can suggest
> false determinism and misleading trivialization.
> I like the way that Seamus Heaney puts it (The Cure at Troy): "History
> says, Don't hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a
> lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and
> history rhyme."
> -- Doug
> On Jul 22, 2012, at 11:48 PM, Shava Nerad wrote:
> On Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 1:02 AM, Prashant Singh <pacificleo at>wrote:
>> is he being too simplistic ? was there more to the revolution than just
>> Food Price ? Would like to know your thoughts . you can see the whole debat
>> online at
> Really, to give a simplistic response, three words:
> Motive
> Means
> Opportunity
> Food price is a motive.
> The internet tools were a means.
> The desperation produced was made into an opportunity by those who wanted
> to wedge activism out of a passive public for a very long time.
> As I said, simplistic.  But it's not too much of a stretch to think of a
> revolution as a crime -- certainly the status quo looks at it that way.
>  And it would be criminal to look at such things with any less complexity,
> ad reductio, so to speak. ;)
> But really, people who want to say, "Not this, only that" regarding
> historic, human, social events have almost always checked their brains at
> the door -- or worse, have assumed that the audience have checked theirs,
> and so an agenda can be pushed.  Danger, either way.
> yrs,
>> --
> Shava Nerad
> shava23 at
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> ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> What  Kind of an Activist Are YOU? Play Activist Mirror and find out!
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*Principal, Reboot*
45 E 20th St, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003
o: +1 917 338 7961 | m: +1 704 281 5322
zack at
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