Opinion: Internet 'positive feedback' loop sped revolution in Egypt

February 19, 2011

Bill Davidow, venture capitalist and a former Intel executive, is the author of several books including the just-released "Overconnected: The Promise and the Threat of the Internet." He wrote this article for the San Jose Mercury News.

Egypt, Tunisia, WikiLeaks and the 2008 economic crisis all share something in common. They were a result of Internet-facilitated positive feedback.

Positive feedback is a process in which change leads to more change. The compounding of money is a positive feedback process.

If you leave money in a savings account that pays 2 percent interest, that interest gets fed back (deposited) into your account. As a result, the money in your account doubles in 36 years. If you increase the amount of feedback in the system by raising the interest rate to 5 percent, the money in the account doubles in 14 years. Just a little bit more positive feedback in the system drives a much faster rate of growth.

In complex social and economic systems, when you increase and strengthen the number of interconnections you add to the amount of positive feedback.

A large amount of positive feedback can drive things to excess, create accidents, and often lead to contagions -- economic, thought and other things.

The Internet is particularly effective at spreading thought contagions that drove the recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries.

In thought contagions, ideas spread from person to person. Frequently a charismatic leader or an important event serves as a catalyst. In the revolution in Tunisia, it was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. His action sparked a contagion: In the days and weeks following his suicide, similar self-immolations took place in Cairo and Algeria.

People describe thought contagions as spreading from individual to individual just like measles or mumps do. But there is an important difference. In the case of disease, you are either immune or you are not. But with thought contagions, your susceptibility to an idea is a function of what others around you think.

For instance, when mob violence erupts, people who would never consider looting a store get swept up in the moment and engage in violent acts that seem permissible because others around them are doing the same thing.

The Internet played a key role in bringing down President Hosni Mubarak by powering the positive feedback processes that helped create the mobs of demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter and online news stories kept people informed. People with similar feelings congregated on websites. Knowing that thousands of others shared their feelings lowered their immunity to the thought contagion that powered the demonstrations.

Could all of this have happened without the Internet? Probably. The Soviet Union crumbled in 1989, and much less powerful interconnection schemes played a role. Fax machines, photocopiers and personal computers all facilitated the collapse. But what is so remarkable about the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt is the speed with which they occurred. The Internet-driven positive feedback processes made the organization easier, the crowds larger, the levels of involvement greater, all of which sped the process along.

There is an important lesson in all of this.

The Internet is going to play an increasingly important role in thought contagions by facilitating organization, spreading information, mobilizing public opinion and bringing together like-minded individuals. In doing this it will increase individuals' susceptibility to thought contagions and increase the numbers who participate.

Some of these thought contagions will drive democratic movements and others will empower radical groups.

Some will lead to very good results and others will have devastating consequences. In most cases we will be amazed by the rate at which Internet-driven positive feedback processes will produce their results. Just ask Mubarak.