2011: The year the power went out

As a person who’s paid to imagine futures based on current trends, I spend a lot of time thinking about those trends. The one that sticks out for me this year is: power outages.

Consider the signals: Osama bin Laden. Gaddafi. Kim Jong-Il. Silvio Berlusconi. Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Rupert Murdoch. Julian Assange. Steve Jobs. The men who wielded power with an iron fist — for good and for ill — have lost that power. Whether they lost it to death or democracy, it’s gone.

2011 was a bad year to be a dictator. In fact, it was a bad year for anyone in authority, even if he or she happened to be holding onto it. Putin was caught rigging the polls. Mugabe’s magistrates are turning against him. Ahmedinejad is hacking websites. It’s like amateur hour, out there. And really, that’s the whole point.

The power is out; the fuses are blown. And the ones rebuilding the grid are not part of the former hierarchy, but kids with phones. The Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street. Midnight deputants at Toronto City Hall. The people of Detroit. The usurpation is so obvious that “The Protester” was the 2011 Time Person of the Year.

Granted, there have been counter-measures to combat this trend. Of these, SOPA is the most recent. Before that, there were the militarized responses to the #OWS movement in Oakland, Seattle, and elsewhere. And naturally, the greatest force at a traditional power structure’s disposal is directly proportionate to its mass: inertia. It’s tough to change an organization from the outside. So tough there’s even a formula to determine whether or not it’s possible. But if 2011 is any indication, it’s more than just possible — it’s probable.

What does that mean for 2012? Lots of things. But what it says to me is that the Internet is becoming flesh. The line separating offline and online dissolved years ago, but now the fundamental principles that make the Internet function — openness, performed anonymity, redundancy, task distribution, instant communication — are the principles on which we expect our civic infrastructures to rest. Once, we wanted the Internet to be more like “real life.” Now, we want real life to look more like “the Internet.”

Democracy is now as DIY a movement as beekeeping and pickling. It is amateur hour, out there. We are the amateurs. And as every happy fanboy and fangirl out there can tell you: it’s great to be an amateur. It’s fun. It’s freeing. You make friends. You make stuff. You make stuff happen.

Happy New Year.