Having had a few very interesting conversations about the historical turn in political science with students in my Comparative Methods class and also used the Arab Spring as an example issue for research design, I was interested to pick up a copy of Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet. This, in case you hadn’t guessed, was the telgraphy and the electronic telegraph. Students reckoned, like many commentators, that the Arab Spring was partly driven by the socially empancipatory potential of the internet and social networking. Sceptically, I pointed out that revolutions took place in the pre-internet era, although admittedly TV and fax machines did play a role in some of the East European ‘Revolutions of ’89’. (Prof James Carey says something similar in recommending ‘historical pragmatism’ as an antedote to the over-hyping of the political consequences of the net in a paper here.)
Perhaps, I thought, there was actually a (his)story of technology and social and political revolution? After, all historical analogies about political processes – comparisons of the Arab Spring with the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Europe’s Springtime of Nations of 1848) – are not in short supply.
Standage’s book offers a readable account of the social impact of the Victorian internet – and makes a reasonable case that this analogy – but, unfortunately, doesn’t really answer this question: it has hapters on the new communications technology and war and peace, as well as a discussion of the changing timescale of news reporting (foreign correspondents reporting in hours or days, not weeks). A similar point s made by Tom Wheeler writing how the North’s use of the telegraph (Mr Lincoln’s ‘t-mails’) won the American Civil War.
Little or nothing on the 19th century ‘internet’ and grassroots social protest and mobilisation, however. Perhaps these technologies were just less emancipatory and usable by non-state actors, hence the lack of research. Or maybe you know different?