The Importance of Egypt’s Revolution
History was made this morning in Egypt. Egypt is free!
Although the outcome is far from certain, it is clear that this moment in history represents a paradigm shift in the human experience: Mass movements can almost instantaneously change even the most rigid power structures. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power after only 18 days of peaceful demonstrations. His military, vast legions of civil servants and overwhelming support within the Arab oligarchy failed to keep him power.
Viewed from another perspective, the Egyptian revolution is just another failure of a large corporation: The vendor (Mubarak) failed to understand the market (Egyptian citizens) and collapsed because they could not adapt quickly enough to the demands of the market (representative governance).
The revolution was remarkable for many reasons:
- It is the first major revolution that was initiated and coordinated using social networks (most notably Twitter and Facebook).
- The epicenter of the revolution was in Egypt’s technology center – Cairo – and was leaderless.
- Protestors opposing the status quo remained peaceful throughout the entire revolution as the military was steadfastly neutral. Only Mubarak’s supporters engaged in violence.
- There was no single unifying cause for the revolution – no overarching political, religious or ideology unified the protestors. The people just wanted change.
Welcome to the new world governed by the hallmarks of the information age: exponential change driven by mass connectivity.
The Math Lessons Learned from Egypt
The Egyptian revolt can large be explained by three quantitative laws that describe the efficiency of concentrating mass the value, the power (sic influence) of social networks and, most importantly, the accelerating nature of human knowledge:
Kleibler’s Law & The Efficiency of Crowds
Kleibler’s Law states that the metabolism rate of an organism is proportional to the ¾ power of its mass. This means that the energy required for any organism, from the smallest bacterium to the largest whale, is accurately described by the equation R ∝M3/4. The implications of this can be extended to the energy efficiency of cities (which require less resources per person than a farm) to the how innovation scales with density (cities are more innovative than small towns). This concept has profound implications on explaining cultural gaps between cities and rural area (maybe a subject for a future blog) and why wealth concentrates in urban areas in advanced economies.
Lesson from Egypt: Mubarak, like almost all dictators, lived inside a close nit group of advisors and supporters. Implicit to his assumption that he could control the entire nation was his assumption that his inner circle could adapt and innovate as quickly as the masses that protested against him. Clearly he didn’t understand the implications of M3/4 where the opposition value of M represented tens of thousands of protestors versus and Mubarak’s M value was measured only in dozens of generals, ministers and other “yes men.”
Metcalfe’s Law & the Value of Communication Networks
Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a communication network is proportional to the number of connection points within the network. For example, if I have 1,500 Twitter followers then the value of my network is smaller than the value of my friend who has 3,500 followers. This theory was popularized during the dot.com boom when investors used this equation, v ∝n2, to approximate the value of communication systems (such website, telephone companies, the Internet, etc.). However, in the past decade a more sober equation, v ∝n log (n), yields a more accurate estimate of network value that is still proportional to the number of connections yet accounts for some connections being more valuable than others. One way to approximate the value of each connection is to apply Zipf’s Law of distributions where v = 1/k as k denotes the ranking of a given connection. Put another way the 2nd ranking connection has a value of ½ of the first ranking connection, the 14th ranking has a value of 1/14th and so on.
Lesson from Egypt: The regime had far fewer connections than the masses. Even though the power of each connection within the regime may have been far greater, the sheer scale of the connectedness amongst the citizenry was overwhelming. Shutting down the Internet could not possibly help – once connections are established in one medium (e.g. Twitter) they easily transfer to other types of connections (e.g. friendships formed in Tahrir Square).
Kurtzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns & the Nature of Human Knowledge
Ray Kurtzweil coined the phrase “Law of Accelerating Returns” to describe his empirical observations that the rate of innovation increases at an exponential rate, RI = t2. This is an extrapolation of Moore’s Law which accurately predicts that the density of microchip circuitry doubles every 24 months at the same or lower cost – resulting in the exponential increases in computational speed. The implications of this concept are profound. Most notably, human knowledge doubles at an ever increasing rate. Currently, Kurtzweil estimates that knowledge doubles every 5 years. By the year 2040 it will be doubling every day. This exponential view of the world is radically different than the way we think about change. For example, most personal endeavors are linear. When we lift weights or train for a running race, our progress is incremental. If anything, the rate of improvement declines as we get better. In technology, the opposite happens. The progress we made last year is fractional to the progress we will make next year.
Lesson from Egypt: The regime failed to learn quickly enough to keep up with the consciousness of its citizenry. It also probably failed to adopt new technologies. Mubarak did not realize that the accelerating rates of change required that his administration focus on being the early adopters of technology. He relied on 1950’s technology (broadcast television and radio) rather than using Internet technologies such as social networks. TV reach is linear (unlike the logarithmic growth of social networks). Moreover, almost no one watches TV on their mobile phones (if they are working) but almost everyone has email, Twitter and Facebook apps. Mubarak was a loyal consumer of whatever he was given by the US – mostly in the form of military training and equipment. Although he had a state-of-the-art military, Mubarak had a 1950’s vision of communications that was top-down and deaf to the cries of the people.
How Not to Interpret the Egyptian Revolution
The American and British press were quick to label the revolution as the result of social networks. Some, such as Fox News, were quick to point to Muslim extremists as the beneficiaries of the revolt — of course leading to an eventual world war. The Mubarak regime spewed xenophobia, citing foreign agitators as the cause for the revolt.
Nothing could be farther from the truth: The protest was a grassroots movement that grew out of years of discontent. Chaos theory does a better job of explaining the revolution as a random “Black Swan” event than the predictive models from intelligence services.
The movement only grew after Mubarak cut off access to the Internet. And despite the best efforts of Western news crews to film Muslim extremists, there were no reports of any major Islamic protests. Unlike Iran in 1978, Egyptian protesters were not chanting “Death to America, Death to Israel” or any of the other touchstone mantras of Muslim extremism. In fact, no cleric could be found in any position of leadership amongst the protestors. Only now are we seeing the beginnings of Islamic influence on the revolution from the Muslim Brotherhood – a small group that is no more extreme in its worldview than its American analog, the Tea Party, which exposes similar calls for government reforms, return to “traditional values” and greater popular influence over the body politic.
There are many reasons to celebrate today. Egypt is free!
The only people that need to be concerned are those that stand at odds with the populace AND fail to understand the mathematics of our new global, connected society.