As recently as 15 years ago, many rural parts of Africa had few phone lines or major roads. There was no rapid way for residents to communicate with metropolitan centers or to access their many benefits, from education to medical care. So when cellphones started to make their way to large swaths of the continent, they were imbued with big hopes: The greater ease of communication, economists and political scientists predicted, would stimulate growth, improve health outcomes, and reduce ethnic tensions.
The truth, political scientists Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach recently found, is more complicated. The spread of cellphones did lead to some economic growth. But it also had some striking downsides. In particular, parts of the continent where cellphone coverage improved also experienced higher levels of political strife. “The availability of cell phone coverage,” Pierskalla and Hollenbach conclude, “significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict.”
This cautionary tale about technological progress fits the spirit of our times. It’s difficult to remember now, but a few short years ago, it seemed obvious that social media would make the world a better place. In countries such as Iran or Syria, its evangelists claimed, it was already toppling dictators. Even at home, Facebook and Twitter would empower ordinary citizens and deepen democracy.
Thomas Friedman offered an especially pure distillation of this boosterish view:
As the I.T. revolution and globalization have been democratized and diffused — as we’ve gone from laptops for elites to smartphones for everyone, from networking for the lucky few at Davos to Facebook for all and from only the rich heard in the halls of power to everyone being able to talk back to their leaders on Twitter — a new global political force is aborning … I call them The Square People.
They are mostly young, aspiring to a higher standard of living and more liberty, seeking either reform or revolution (depending on their existing government), connected to one another either by massing in squares or through virtual squares or both, and united less by a common program and more by a shared direction they want their societies to go.