As I write this, I am watching a live video stream from Hryshevsky Street, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Several hundred protesters are facing off against several hundred riot police. Right now there is no changed situation, but there is a ceaseless cacophony of sound coming from the protesters, beating clubs against metal barrels, light standards, and the burnt-out hulks of buses lying across the road. This is an episode in the ongoing Euromaidan protest movement, which started out as a reaction to the failure of the Ukrainian government to enter into a long-promised association agreement with the European Union. Euromaidan is an amalgam of the words for Europe and Square, and it is how Independence Square in the centre of Kyiv, where the main rallies take place, has given its name to the whole movement. It has since morphed into a wider movement of disaffection with the failure of any meaningful reform of Ukraine’s society since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the nation’s independence, 22 years ago.
While a handful of policemen are video-recording the crowd and keeping the information secret, almost everyone in the crowd is taking videos, snapping pictures, and sending text messages, and making the information public. The technical means of suppressing dissent by state authorities is traditional in every respect, while the behaviour of the crowd is unprecedented. It is not a traditional mob mentality, but it is very much what Marshall McLuhan called the tribal mind, enabled by its technical connector, the Internet. An even better example of the tribal mind in action, within the global village that is the Internet, is not this street confrontation with state authorities, but the “AutoMaidan” protests going on in Ukraine now. This is where small groups of motorists co-ordinate mobile action of observation and demonstration with their smartphones. Where the participants do not even need to see each other, this is truly a “crowd-sourced” democratic revolution. Co-ordinated by mobile telephone calls and text messaging, AutoMaidan has even become a quasi-vigilante force against the “titushky” (hooligans, or street thugs) who have been paid to engage in vandalism and disruptions, designed to discredit the protest movement.
But why am I so interested in what is going on in the streets of Kyiv? After all, the whole point of the Internet is that it is the communications medium of the Universal and Homogeneous State. It is everywhere, and it is everywhere the same. The reason, naturally enough, is personal. Because of my own experience living and working in Ukraine in the 1990s, I can draw a connection between the birth of the Internet in that country, and what is happening now in the squares and streets of central Kyiv, and indeed in most of the regions of Ukraine.
Behind the protesters I am watching on Hryshevsky Street, there is a traffic circle at the top of Volodymyrska Uzviz. Going down that hill towards the Dnieper River, one is in the neighbourhood of Podil, the lower town of Kyiv. Podil is the home of the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA), an ancient institution of higher learning that was re-founded immediately after Ukrainian independence. Its languages of instruction are Ukrainian and English, and it does its best to practice academic freedom and self-governance, without supplication to government diktat, on a more Western model of a university. I was a lecturer of politics and the director of an Internet access project at NaUKMA, from 1993 to 1996. This was a time of great pride in Ukrainian nationhood and independence, but also of crushing hyper-inflation and the start of oligarch acquisitiveness and the crony capitalist system that has bedevilled Ukraine to this day.
“The Kiev-Mohyla Academy: First online university in Ukraine”
My work as a lecturer can be characterized as traditional. I taught my curious students about different political constitutions, but more importantly about different political cultures. The lecture hall was a safe place to argue anything, but idealism stopped there. Building civil society — which is what it was supposed to be all about — was left for countries that had magically found the “secret”, like Britain, Canada, and the United States. The world of vibrant non-governmental organizations, spontaneous and genuine volunteerism, and of a public life that had little connection to state institutions — all these things were for “outside”, and not for Ukraine.
It was different with the Internet access project. Here was something that had no precedent in the Soviet Union, nor did it have a substantial cultural precedent in the West. The World Wide Web had only recently been invented, and the first graphical browsers were being introduced. Control of the Internet had long been released from the U.S. military, and had recently been released from the control of the National Science Foundation in the United States. The Internet was going to be what the world made of it, and that included Ukraine.
I knew that the Internet was going to be revolutionary, and that it was going to be revolutionary in a democratic way. I was one of the earliest members of the National Capital Freenet in Ottawa, Canada, which was a pioneering effort of Carleton University to open its portal onto the global academic and research computer network to the public, for free. When I went to Ukraine, I took this sensibility of free and open access to the Internet with me. For my personal use, I am told that I was the first paying customer for an online Internet service in Ukraine. When I started to formulate a plan for free and open access to the Internet for students and faculty at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy, I found enthusiastic support, both among the university community and foreign donors.
The goal of project was stated on our web site, the first version of which appeared in 1994. You can still view it at the WayBack Machine Internet Archive. Our mission statement read: “The University of ‘Kiev-Mohyla Academy’ Internet Project is a large-scale effort to provide access and training for computer communications to each and every student, professor and administrator at the University. The goal is to transform the UKMA into Ukraine’s first on-line campus.” The students who visited the computer lab of the NaUKMA Internet Project were amazed. Here was this gold mine of information and communication, and it was theirs to access for free. This was everything the Soviet Union was not, and it seemed to symbolize the brave new world of independent Ukraine among the family of nations. Beyond learning English and studying under a few Western professors, here was something truly new and exciting that marked these young people as distinct. They were peers with their cohorts from Western countries, and they were set apart from their parents’ generation in their own country.
“The global village’s tribal mind confronts traditional politics”
So what did this first generation of Internet-savvy Ukrainians do with their knowledge and power? For many, the path they trod was the familiar one of emigration, away from their impoverished native land. This is regrettable, but understandable. I was not only training the future elite of Ukraine, but also helping to create a pool of highly-qualified emigrants, whose lives and talents ended up benefitting Western Europe and North America. But if my ideas about vibrant civil society barely left the political science lecture hall, the practical civil society ethos inherent in the Internet, and introduced to them through the NaUKMA Internet Project, went with my students beyond the university. It was embedded in the technology that took over the whole world in the dot-com and tech-boom era of the late 1990s. It was in the first mobile phone which they bought, or the first laptop, when they went on to graduate school or to getting their first job.
In Ukraine itself, there was a leap-frogging of technology. Land-line telephones were never very good, and never would be, so mobile telephones became ubiquitous and leading edge. The citizens of Kyiv were using text messaging for hailing taxis and for making restaurant reservations long before anyone else. Television was banal, and fell under state control or under the control of the oligarchs, and so for real information and communication Ukrainians turned to online media. They were chatting, posting, and blogging online before Facebook, sharing music before BitTorrent, and they were recording and watching videos online before YouTube. Everyone in Ukraine knows that the real news is to be learned online, and is to be watched — and generated! — on a smartphone, tablet or computer, and not on a television. Ukrainians built civil society online, because the virtual space of the Internet was the only space in which that could happen for them. The freedom and openness required for real, non-state and non-private civil society is inherent in the technological processes that underlie the Internet. They’re inherent in the suite of protocols for spontaneous and open interconnection of nodes over packet-switched wide area networks. They’re in the DNA of the Internet. That same freedom and openness has not yet come to the traditional, physical space of social life in Ukraine, and has remained a “beyond the borders” dream until now. I was told by my students in the 1990s that my idealism was misplaced, and that the entire generation of people raised under the Soviet Union had to die, or to age beyond the relevance of power, before anything like the civil society I talked about in my politics lectures and demonstrated at the Internet access project would come to fruition in Ukraine. I didn’t believe them then, but they were wise in a way that I was not. Now, it is up to a new generation, who do not even have childhood memories of the Soviet Union, to take up the fight.
Which brings us to why there is all this fuss over a boring, bureaucratic, and incremental association agreement with the European Union. It is because the European Union — or more importantly the standards and practices and the ideals of the European Union for civil society — is seen as the completion of the democratic revolution that started in 1991. A bottom-up democratic revolution has been held back by hide-bound elites stuck in the practices of the past. Commissars transformed themselves into oligarchs, and they found useful mouthpieces to front governments for them, and that has been the story throughout the former Soviet Union — bar those countries with the luck or wisdom to place themselves in the orbit of the EU. The great hope of the last few years for Ukrainians has been that the external influence of the EU could ameliorate the people’s suffering, and offer a way out of their misery.
It used to be said that in Soviet Union times freedom was not to be found in the streets, but only around the kitchen table. In other words, the public space was enslavement while the private space was liberty. A civil space between the two was nowhere to be found. The promise of independence for Ukraine was supposed to be the extension of private and familial liberty into civil society and into the public life of citizens within the state. That did not happen with most of civil society, which remains weak, and it did not happen at all with state institutions, which remain profoundly corrupt, inefficient, arbitrary, and oppressive. The shining exception was a new, virtual civil society sustained by the Internet, which flourishes in Ukraine. This is the force that Euromaidan protesters carry with them, and which offers a glimmer of hope amidst so much despair. Ukraine today has almost no independent news media outside the Internet, and so the liberal ideal of a citizen who is a rational and informed calculator of his or her own self-interest can only be realized by Ukrainians who are Internet-connected. Internet access has become a human right, for those who take democracy seriously.
“Virtual communities and the seeds of a democratic renaissance”
I was profoundly moved by one image I saw, taken from the largest demonstration yet held in the central square of Kyiv. Half a million people gathered, and in the winter darkness they were filmed by a pilotless drone, chanting “Glory to Ukraine!” and punching their fists in the air. In their clenched fists they held mobile phones, shining blue-white light into the night sky. Everything about this scene — the pilotless drone with a camera, the hundreds of thousands of people with their independent information and communication devices — spoke to the power of the Internet, and its force in sustaining civil society. I can draw a connection between this moment of mass political action, that I was witnessing from my own Internet-connected computer from the other side of the world, and quieter moments in a computer lab at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy almost 20 years ago. I think of how many times I patiently explained to new arrivals at the Internet Project how a graphical browser worked, or how to write an email message. I never had to tell them twice. Soon they were teaching themselves. Once the match was lit, the flame never died. It never could, and I am inspired by the strength of the fire of liberty that we kindled then.