Events in Tunisia and Egypt have rocked the news as people try to understand what is happening. “No one expected it or predicted it”. That’s true, but we should try to figure it out.
Two great Canadian thinkers, Harold Innes and Marshall McLuhan, might help us get there. Innes started out writing about the cod fishery and the fur trade, and ended up understanding the “empire of communications”. Simply put, what we produce and the way we trade and communicate has everything to do with the structures and cultures around us. McLuhan in his groundbreaking “Understanding Media” used this central insight to inform everything he wrote – “the medium is the message”.
There was a UN report a few years ago on economic and social developments in the Arab world that caused quite a stir, because it brought together facts and figures that everyone needs to absorb. Most of the population is under 25, birthrates remain high, poverty is widespread, education is poor, the rights of women and minorities are ignored, and governance structures are sclerotic and oppressive. But technologies don’t stand still, and lie outside the control of the regimes that are in place.
Enter the cell phone, the internet, the i-phone and the blackberry. These are “personal devices” which empower the individual to learn, to communicate, to connect. Governments try to repress them from time to time but it can’t be done.
A generation of young people with no work, plenty of time on their hands, and living in countries where the politics is truly stuck and the economies apart from oil are having trouble growing – it’s the perfect storm. Add to this mix on the fringes political ideologies and extremism and the storm takes on added strength.
Will this produce instant democracy ? Absolutely not. Armies and state structures will have their day and their say. But the social change underway can’t be stopped, and governments are going to need to show a capacity for change, openness, transparency, accountability, and, yes, democracy and human rights.
We live in interesting times.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.