The Revolution Will Be Written In HTML

Brenda Wambui
22 October ,2013

After the Westgate attack, an American friend who works as a freelance journalist based in Kenya tweeted that he was tired of listening to a government that spouts lies and a nation that was unwilling to question it. To which I responded that several questions were being asked daily, minute by minute even, especially online – all he had to do was check on Twitter. He responded that we can’t change a government via Twitter – that it’s lazy – and we should get our media to ask real questions.

This got me thinking. Countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have long lagged behind the West due to the type of institutions they have. In the book Why Nations Fail, the authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that nations fail because of the following:

  1. – Extractive economic institutions (which are structured to extract resources from the many by the few, or elite, and that fail to protect property rights or provide incentives for economic activity)
  2. – Extractive political institutions (which concentrate power in the hands of the few and develop to support extractive economic institutions)
  3. – Lack of centralization of political institutions

Kenya and many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia easily fall into the extractive institutions camp, and if the authors are to be believed and all factors are held constant, we are headed for failure, and that is if we have not already failed. It is easy to see why countries like Kenya are where they are today – extractive institutions, lack of proper centralization and most of all, the fear of the elite of creative destruction and innovation.

The book argues that, for any economic success, political institutions must be centralized enough to provide public services like justice, enforcement of contracts and education. When these functions are carried out, inclusive institutions enable innovation to emerge and lead to continued growth. The Industrial Revolution is a good example of what is possible under inclusive institutions. Extractive institutions are also able to deliver growth, but only when the economy is far from the technological frontier. They will always ultimately fail, however, when innovation and “creative destruction” are needed to push the frontier. Hence, even though success is possible for some time under extractive institutions, continuing success is only possible under inclusive institutions.

The authors also find that sustained economic growth requires innovation, which comes hand in hand with creative destruction, and replaces the old with the new in the economic realm also destabilizing established power relations in politics. Basically, inclusive institutions create an environment where citizens are empowered to innovate, invest in the market and work towards development.

Our institutions have been designed to stifle innovation and creative destruction – for example, when it comes to the ease of doing business worldwide, Kenya ranks at 121 out of 185 countries, and at 126 when it comes to the ease of starting a business. The gatekeepers at the institutions responsible do their best to make the process an absolute pain. This of course stifles innovation and creative destruction, and ensures that power in many industries remains in the hands of a few.

This method of stifling innovation and creative destruction worked well until the greatest invention of the 20th century arrived in Kenya: the internet. The internet has changed democracy as we know it, it has changed all forms of government as we knew them before. After all the things we have seen it do, it is extremely easy for a discussion on the effects of the internet to become anecdotal – to quote the Arab spring, to mention several Kickstarters, to casually mention fundraising causes like Kenyans for Kenya – it almost seems normal now, like nothing out of the ordinary.

Perhaps we overlook the ways in which the internet has changed how we are governed, especially in Kenya. It may not yet be within the reach of a majority of Kenyans, but even then, its effects have been felt all over the country.

The internet is the greatest democratizing force of our time.

By this, I refer to the literal meaning of the word democracy: majority rule, or the rule of the people. A democratizing force is one which increases the power of the people, and what has the internet done since it came around, if not increase the people’s power?

The internet gives political power to the people. It has become a tool to seek legitimacy (verified accounts on Twitter) and attention – resources which directly affect the power of politicians and therefore governments. On the internet, the people hold these resources, and as the saying goes, he who has greater need has less power. The centre of power shifts from the elite, who are so used to having it, to the citizens – as it should rightly be in any democracy.

Perhaps the greatest thing that happens online is the shaping of ideas. Before, one was limited to sharing ideas with people who were physically accessible, or via books, letters, telephone, telegraph and other slow means of communication. Now, all one has to do to share ideas with people in Venezuela is get online. The list of means is endless – be it Twitter, Reddit, Facebook or listserves – one can meet like minds, share one’s ideas and form opinions – decide what one likes and doesn’t like, and what one wishes to do about it.

Once ideas are constructed, interest groups emerge, and people are able to become aware of problems online, identify like-minded people and notify them of the problem as well. This creates a buzz, and this buzz can be used to create a particular outcome – it is what sites like Kickstarter thrive on.

Skills have been learned by many online, via sites like Coursera, YouTube and Udacity. One may not be able to afford school fees, but if one can get internet access, there is little that cannot be learnt online. This, of course leads to massive innovation and creative destruction – it puts the power over one’s knowledge and skill-set firmly in one’s hands. Resources are able to move across the world faster than they ever had before: a Kenyan in the USA can create a site to monitor injustices in Kenya without ever having to come back. The list of uses can continue ad infinitum.

The internet makes several gatekeepers irrelevant, and that is why people are constantly trying to control it – to “harness” it and “give it more order”, because of the immense power it has in its currently almost uncontrolled state. We have seen this locally, with the Media Council suggesting that bloggers be trained so that they are prosecutable (that is basically what the Council CEO said), and internationally with bills like SOPA and PIPA.

This increased awareness and power has boded well for Kenyans. When all of us come together and start asking our government questions online, even if it is on Twitter, it serves as one collective voice. Individually, we may not get heard, but as a collective, we can do great things. These interest groups, like Kenyans on Twitter for example (in a very loose sense, because most are interested in Kenya and its well-being), embody the sum total of the resources at the disposal of each individual. On Twitter, this would be the sum total of the followers of everyone asking questions about incidents like Westgate, for example. With this new found power, these groups are able to challenge other resource rich entities online.

The examples in Kenya are endless. In the past two months alone, Kenyans online took to task Governor Kidero for slapping Women’s Rep Shebesh, Senator Sonko for abusing Caroline Mutoko, the government for its poor response to the Westgate crisis, Sonko and Shebesh for their alleged affair and yet again the government for the unaccounted for Ksh. 338 billion.

We may feel like we are just making noise online, like it is all for nought, but it is not. Our cabinet secretaries, public officials and the president are not on Twitter because they think it is cool. It is because they have to be there, because a power shift has occurred and the elite love power. They would follow it into hell if it came to that. If they had it their way, they would probably not be online. When Kenyans have demanded for answers online, they got them. Granted, most of these answers have been lies, but they got them all the same. That is a start, and it can only get better.

In future, with the easy access to information online which can only get easier, it will become harder to take people for fools. When my American friend says that we should push the media to ask these questions, perhaps he does not see that the traditional media has also been caught flat footed. Mass communication was once at the beck and call of resource rich individuals, corporations and the government – he who paid the piper called the tunes. Along came the internet, and everyone started a blog and opened a Twitter account, basically making everyone a mini-publisher. User generated content became king.

There came an abundance of choice on where to get one’s information. Anyone can shape anyone else’s views, anywhere in the world. It is easy to see why traditional media would not be the people to look to for leadership in such cases – they are right there with politicians and government, unsure of how to react.

On the flipside, however, never has it been easier to make it into the news. Journalists are online, and will pick up leads for interesting stories from there. This not only applies to local journalists, but to international ones as well. A news cycle in these days may go like this: fire breaks out at JKIA. Man tweets about it. Lady twitpics it. Man and Lady get retweeted severally. Many people start asking questions. Al Jazeera picks it up. Next comes BBC. Next come our local news. Within two hours, the whole world knows that JKIA is burning down .

It may still feel illicit to many that you can change the world in your pyjamas, without leaving your house. Perhaps that is why a lot of the talk online is met with “Why don’t you go out into the ‘real world’ and do something about it?” Many find it difficult to translate activism online into ‘real world’ activism. The internet facilitates and accelerates on-the-ground activism, but it does not change the manner in which it is done. Usually, any anti-government activity is met with backlash, and in Kenya, this can be seen whenever blogger(s) are arrested for ‘being annoying’. What the internet has done is reduced the cost of organizing protests. Maybe we will see more people join physical protests in future after having participated in them online.

Others may argue that the internet has not changed anything major in Kenya, especially politics, which is still tribal and partisan. This is also true. However, the internet has changed how we understand politics, and the relationship between us and our government. We are questioning the status quo each day. It all begins with an idea and a recognition.

The internet in Kenya has, and will continue to, lead to more innovation, hence creative destruction. By shifting power from the elite, it will continue to lead to more inclusive political institutions, and later on, economic institutions. It will help us keep those in charge of political centralization in check, and maybe lead to better public service delivery. This may seem idealistic, it is; but it is not far-fetched.

Of course, the internet won’t change everything in a day. There are some things that cannot be changed online, or in a day. However, when it comes to the definition of democracy and power to the people, it is the closest we have come. So the next time someone tells you that you are “just” tweeting about it and that you are lazy, beg to differ. The revolution is happening in hearts and minds across the country, across the world – in bedrooms and living rooms and toilets – link by link, blog post by blog post, tweet by tweet.

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