As many of you know, I wrote a thesis during my senior year of college. That effort to graduate from William & Mary with honors failed miserably. I cannot emphasize how awful this thesis was. In part, I had bitten off way more than I could chew - senioritis, living off-campus for the first time, working part-time, and having a thesis topic too big for an honors thesis. At the center of the thesis was a simple question: what happens to regimes as information technology progresses?
Now, I wrote this bad boy in 1998 - that's before cellphones were owned by everyone, before texting, facebook, myspace, skype, etc. And as technology progresses, I like to revisit my thesis and see how it all progresses.
I have to say, for such a phenomenally crappy piece of work, my theories were pretty darn close to the truth. As countries develop economically, businesses in those countries require information technology to keep up with the countries from around the globe. This information technology has to be decentralized to work effectively, and that allows new social networks to spring up. And as those new social networks spring up, regimes must learn how to deal with them. Authoritarian regimes, which need to control all social networks to survive, will become unstable.
With that said, here's what I got wrong - I completely missed the boat on mobile internet technology and consumer demand. For the past 10-15 years, the IT world has been driven not by business needs but by a need to provide consumers with the next big thing. Texting, for instance, has some business applications (similar to sending a telegram), but has much broader applications in the consumer market (let's face it, text messaging has been a godsend to nervous teenage boys everywhere).
So, countries are not forced so much by globalization to introduce information technology so much as their own citizenry push for it. And let's face it, what's the fun of owning an iPad if there's no WiFi? Even the leaders of the regime want to play with new toys.
This leads us back to the original problem - social networks. As technology spreads, so does the ability of people to create social networks. For a good number of websites, that's the whole point. These social networks, in turn, exist outside governmental control and when those networks turn on the government, there are periods of instability (good instability = the dictator is overthrown; bad instability = dictator ruthlessly slaughters the opposition).
But what about China? China is, after all, an authoritarian regime that has undergone tremendous economic growth, and has spent billions in upgrading its infrastructure. Why is it more or less stable? The answer, I think, relates to China's size. As such a large market operator, China is able to dictate to companies like Facebook and Google terms that make unauthorized social networking difficult. Look up "Tienanmen Square" on a search engine in China, and you are told about how its a lovely place to visit. There will be no mention of the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters. Egypt and Libya couldn't dream of such controls.
So, to sum up - I once wrote an awful, awful thesis with a pretty good premise. As time goes on, the predictions still hold up.