Malcolm Gladwell’s comment on the web edition of the New Yorker which poured some water into the wine of excitement about the potential of new technology. And what we saw from Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab countries this week seems to add to the perspective: it is not just new media which makes revolutions inevitable. There are still a number of other factors which mediate the eruption and impact of widespread discontent in the Middle East.
On a different note though, last week has shown the power of the internet for holding politicians accountable in a somewhat new and quaint context. Since a couple of years, Germany has a new rising star in politics, the current Secretary of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (his real name runs over half a page of nobility titles and stuff – we spare you this). He is young (39), smart and eloquent, good looking, filthy (old money-) rich as a Baron with a long ancestry of Franconian nobility, boasts a beautiful wife and cute kids and so far has done quite a good job as a federal top politician in Berlin. He is well connected, also beyond Germany and one of the few German politicians who can actually talk coherently in English (then Industry Secretary). Many touted him for future Chancellor (German for Prime Minister).
Earlier last week though events took an ugly turn. Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a law professor from Bremen University, published a book review of Guttenberg’s recently published PhD thesis in some law review. Initially drawn to the work by scholarly interest – the book is a comparative study of constitutional law in the US and Europe – he had some strange déjà-vu’s while reading Guttenberg’s 435-page tome. He googled a few paragraphs which appeared familiar and as a result, he published in the appendix to his review dozens of passages, where Guttenberg had just copied and pasted newspaper articles, speech manuscripts and journal papers. Of course without any citation, any reference and without even mentioning most of them in his 50-page reference list. Immediately, an online community of bloggers and researchers zoomed in on the case. The immediately set up website ‘GuttenPlag Wiki’ so far has digged up around 120 alleged incidents of plagiarism in Guttenberg’s PhD.
Now one has to consider that in Germany carrying a ‘Dr.’ in front of your name - rather than indicating academic ambitions – is, however, by now almost a requisite to enter the higher echelons of politics and business. So getting the title by what now appears to be a thesis rampant with plagiarized parts is no small feat. No wonder this lead to widespread debate about whether such a cheating and disingenuous individual could still be in such senior political role. Especially as his brand was very much predicated on being ‘authentic’, ‘straightforward’ and ‘genuine’ – unlike all those clichés the public normally harbours about the political class. The glee about ‘zu Copyberg’, ‘Baron Cut-and-Paste’ or ‘zu Googleberg’ is limitless in European media.
Now the interesting thing about this is not necessarily the fact that we come across yet another sleazy politician. Fair enough, if the allegations are true, zu Guttenberg has cheated and there is no way he could keep his degree. More serious, it now came out that he also used the Parliamentary Research department and pasted their reports into his PhD - without any reference. In fact, suspicions that the whole tome was written by a Ghostwriter are now popping up all over the web. The Minister has announced on Friday: "I will temporarily, I repeat temporarily, give up my doctoral title." Crisis management German style.
The really interesting story in our view though is the pivotal role the internet has played in this case. The initial review in the law journal was only possible because some young guy in a provincial university was able to use Google and other software to detect plagiarism comprehensively. And the subsequent frenzy of research online which discovered even more incidents of plagiarism just put up the heat on Guttenberg. Politicians – like most of us these days – are so much more transparent and thus also accountable for their legacy and actions – just because technology empowers ‘normal’ citizens to access so much more information. One of the funnier incidents in cypberspace is the facebook page on this (‘If Guttenberg has a Doctor, I want one too!’) or the new keyboard designed for PhDs a la Guttenberg - with all keys removed except the 'c'ut and 'v'-paste ones...
The lessons from this are clear. Yes, it still matters how people think, what ethical convictions drive them and what values are held in high regard. For many other places in the world, this scandal just sounds a little quaint, German, parochial. In the Anglo-Saxon World, politicians are more prone to fall over irregularities in their love life. But the dynamics and the mechanics of political processes – be it the fairly prosaic plagiarism in the PhD thesis of a German politician or the far more substantial way of organising a revolution in Egypt – are fundamentally altered by the way we can access, process, analyse and distribute information these days. Kadhafi’s shoutdown of social media in Libya today just seems to underline this point.
Needless to say, that those cases also raises some challenging implications for private corporations, whose ethical behaviour now - just by dint of the technical means - faces a new wave of transparency. But that's a topic for a whole now blog, we guess.
Photo by isafmedia. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.