Sunday, March 06, 2011

Revolutionary Solidarity

Solidarity is not discovered by reflection, but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, 'They do not feel as WE would'. -Richard Rorty
Like many, I have been obsessively following the rapid spread of revolutionary uprisings throughout MENA on Twitter and Facebook. It is impossible to summarize one's emotions in these times, which somehow simultaneously combines awe (at the countless acts of selfless heroism), anger (at the cruelty and brutality of a few), and hope (for a better future for humanity).

As an entrepreneur, when I take a step back and look at the general trends manifested by these uprisings, I can't help but be overcome by a deep sense of solidarity and commonality of purpose with the masses on the streets of MENA. That is not just because all entrepreneurs aspire to bring about revolutionary new changes to their field, but because we all seem to be marching at the forefront of a larger, emerging global consciousness whose core values are:

1) Belief in the Possibility of Change

People join a political revolution when they reach a point where they can no longer tolerate things-as-they-are and start realizing that there is a possibility that the socio-political status quo can change. "Acceptance" and "Status Quo" are no longer deemed to have an intrinsic value (which have been the core value in traditional societies), and are in fact blamed for being the instruments of oppression and as such, responsible for much of the suffering. The Frankfurt School Critical Theorists and Poststructuralists of 20th Century (e.g., Foucault) popularized these notions in the academia, but their mass application has only recently seen the light of the day.

Similarly, entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in one's conviction in the value of change. Sometimes the change may be about making a floppy disk smaller; or a new way of using a computer or a handheld device. But by definition, innovation and entrepreneurship is all about breaking with the past and bringing about a change, sometimes risking a lot in the process (though the entrepreneurial risks pale in comparison with the dangers faced by the revolutionaries on the streets).

2) Trust in Democratic Processes

Removal of an autocratic regime and replacing it with a democratic government is among the top demands of the masses in MENA. It stems from decades-long brewing of disdain for autocratic rule by an elite few who have used the citizenry as mere instruments towards furthering their own individual interests. Revolts, revolutions and uprisings are nothing new in the MENA as elsewhere in the world; what is remarkable during the recent string of uprisings, however, is the lack of a central opposition figure-head, a cult-of-personality that was central to prior upheavals (e.g., recall the central role of Khomeini in Iranian Revolution of 1979). Thus, there seems to be a common understanding and unspoken faith in people's capability to self-organize and govern themselves by putting their trust in a process that draws upon the collective wisdom rather than a person.

This "common understanding" seems to be the invisible hand that guides the entrepreneurial community as well. Startups are for the most part self-organizing, non-hierarchical entities, with a particular disdain for traditional corporate structures and detailed processes. Chaotic, agile, lean and spontaneous processes are respected as conducive to innovation and progress, whereas hierarchical, authority-based processes (characterized by lots of higher-level approval requirements) are frowned upon (if not, laughed at). Each startup is an exercise in democracy, and coincidentally enough, much of the products these startups create aim at further facilitating mass collaboration and contribution by drawing upon the potential of the crowds. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and scores of other social networking tools demonstrate how each individual is not only a consumer of important content, but also a producer with the potential to move and mobilize masses. As a result, today less and less personalities dominate our consumption of news, entertainment, or educational material than any other time in history. Technology entrepreneurs have tapped into the intrinsic value of the contributory potential of an individual in a way few governments have ever ever been able to do.  

3) Disdain for Centralization

Autocratic regimes tend to be heavily centralized for obvious reasons: The dictatorial head of the state needs to maximize his control in order to minimize the risk of a coup or transparency into his personal gains. Thus, centralized government control over all societal institutions, including economy, media and communications are necessary to the survival of a dictatorship (e.g., there is no "freedom of speech" in any of the dictatorial regimes, and most uprisings are met with a shutdown of mass communications infrastructure as it was done in Algeria and Egypt recently). Because of this, centralized structures are all but synonymous with the threat of oppression and dictatorship. Not surprisingly, demands for a decentralized government has been high on the revolutionary agenda in the MENA.

Decentralization has also been a core value in the tech community. Entrepreneurial ventures are mostly decentralized organizations, where smaller teams work on projects with minimal central control as mentioned above. The Internet itself is based on a framework for decentralized distribution of packets of data (although the decentralization work is still far from over, as evidenced by the need for solutions such as the one advocated by OpenMesh Project), and many popular applications take advantage of the efficiency gains and network effects inherent in a distributed network (e.g., Skype, BitTorrent)). The general disdain for centralized approaches and normative preference for decentralized, distributed and unregulated processes is quite palpable across the entrepreneurial communities (see also, the debate over network neutrality).

Although thousands of miles apart, our entrepreneurial community shares its set of core values with the freedom fighters in MENA. This does not only explain why these events feel so instinctively important to us, but also serves as a reminder that we should do our share to further spread the word about their struggle as an act of solidarity.

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