There must have been nothing good on TV in Brazil last Monday. Which is weird, because when seemingly every programme ever made is available on the internet at the click of a mouse, there's always something good on. Still, there must have been nothing on, because last week thousands of middle-class young people chose tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets over the comfort of their homes. It began as a protest against a bus-fare hike in Sao Paulo, but quickly swelled and diversified to include more than a million protesters in more than 80 cities.
What do they want? In a country with one of the world's largest wealth gaps this might seem obvious. But in Brazil, as previously in Turkey, the authorities have professed themselves baffled by the participation of young professionals in anti-government protests, and mystified by their apparently incoherent aims. What could these beneficiaries of a Bric economy, with their smartphones and their social media, who enjoy more democratic freedoms than their parents ever did, possibly want for?
It has become fashionable, not least among veterans of earlier social revolutions, to despair of the apathetic young. This generation was assumed too distracted by its numerous sources of entertainment, and too involved in its endless Facebooking to acknowledge injustice, let alone mount a protest against it. Global events of the past few years have challenged this assumption and by now even Turkey's fuddy-duddy Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked out that Twitter may be as much a formidable "menace to society", as it is a medium for exchanging selfies.
Erdogan's comments about Twitter were cited by protesters as further evidence of his stubborn refusal to listen to his people. Yet even as governments seem to dismiss legitimate concerns by over-emphasising new technology, they are underestimating new technology. Since the Arab Spring, the central role social media platforms play in democratic movements has been widely recognised. But the internet is more than just a convenient way to organise a demo. It is both catalyst and over-arching metaphor for the situation in Brazil, Turkey, and many more countries around the world where slow-changing governments trail fast-changing economies.
If protesters seem to bounce from cause to cause as quickly as a search engine from page to page, it's not because they are either mindless thugs or spoilt little iPhone wielders who can't make up their minds. It's because, in an interconnected world, it is clearer than ever how bus fares are linked to World Cup spending, are linked to education reform, are linked to police brutality. The internet has made possible the connections between communities, but also made obvious the connections between ideas.
What do the protesters want? In one sense it no longer matters, because it is no longer within the power of their governments to give it to them. This generation has experienced a different, decentralised way to order society, where free-flowing dialogue is immediate, not granted after a negotiation. And they will only be satisfied when the system of government has been reorganised to match it – IRL (i.e. In Real Life), as it were.
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