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Posted: January 25, 2012

Power to the people: The great consumer backlash, Part 2

Taking on Orwell's "Big Brother"

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: The is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.)

Ever since George Orwell published his 1949 head-turning classic 1984, people have had a lingering fear of government usurping too much power and -- especially in the electronic age -- monitoring our every movement.

The 1984 paranoia surrounding Big Brother is still alive today, but with one big difference. The little guys now have the tools to fight back. People power has gone mainstream:

• In May 2011, a Chicago jewelry artist accused Urban Outfitters on her blog of copying her designs, her post went viral and the company pulled the items within a day.

• When Facebook pushes their transparency plans too far, users scream and Facebook changes their approach.

• Coca-Cola released a special 2011 white and silver holiday design for its cans to raise awareness about the plight of polar bears. But the cans closely resembled the silver ones used for Diet Coke and many diehard Coke drinkers felt misled. As a result, they took to the Internet to complain and the company pulled the can design.

• On Dec 19th a video showed up on YouTube of a FedEx courier tossing a computer monitor over a backyard fence. In days, the video had millions of views, and began showing up on everything from Good Morning America, to CNN News, to the Late Show with David Letterman. FedEx responded quickly with a YouTube video of its own and a blog post saying that the courier's behavior was "absolutely, positively unacceptable."

Micro-Movements and the Tools of the People

In the past, most governments could use heavy-handed top-down tactics to foil any protest or uprising. But the toolsets used by the people are changing. The most powerful tools in today's arsenals are transparency and instant communication. Spotting injustice and rubbing the public's nose in it can cause micro-movements to surface and explode in less than a day.

This new trend is all about micro-movements and their ability to self-organize in minutes, not days, and cause the world to change. Micro-movements are an instant checks and balance where other systems fail. The watchers are watching, so the listeners have to be listening. Anyone who doesn't respond quickly runs the risk of being burned at the stake of public ridicule.

When it comes to other tools these architects of micro-movement can leverage, in addition to generating instant awareness, they can influence people's political vote, their monetary vote (where they spend their money), and their attention vote (where they spend their time). Going even further, leveraging perhaps the most disruptive tool of all, they can cause people to register a defiance vote, ignore the rules, and simply walk away. This can have severe consequences, but if played right, can quickly garner political backing.

As an example, when housing prices began to plummet and the outstanding mortgages were more than the underlying value of the houses, homeowners simply walked away. Even though it wasn't the result of any well-planned movement, the next one might be. Given the right circumstances, someone may architect a similar mass exit for the following situations:

• As the price of college education begins to drop, the outstanding student loans will begin to seem unreasonable. At this point it wouldn't take a lot of effort to convince large numbers of people to stop paying their student loans.

• As frustration over big banks increase, many could be influenced to move to credit unions or "no bank" alternatives.

• As credit card companies continue to press for high transaction fees, companies and consumers could be directed toward Dwolla and other low-fee options.

• As health insurance companies try to raise prices, virtually every increase could become a new micro-movement with people lining up to change it.

Big Citizenry Going Global

The past 18 months have seen extraordinary outpourings of discontent. BBC writer Paul Mason captured the reasons behind this movement well in his column "Twenty Reasons Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere." Listen closely as the voice of the people begins to gain momentum. Look for both the technology that supports it to improve, startups to form around the micro-movement industry and spring to life, and political pressure to be felt like never before.

The Arab Spring has set most governments of the world on notice. On Jan. 1, probably more as a preemptive strike, the Chinese government ordered the cancellation of what it considered "low brow" programming, dropping many of its most popular TV programs from 126 a week to just 38, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

Each of China's 34 satellite television channels is now limited to an hour and a half of light entertainment programming between 7.30 p.m. and 10 p.m. In addition, the regulations now require at least two half-hour news bulletins a night.

Protests are now a daily occurrence in China and officials are responding to each incident differently. But this kind of "people power" will not go away anytime soon, and China will have entirely new kinds of outbreaks to deal with this year. Economic turmoil is causing uprising throughout Europe, but this time around they will be far more exacting in how the protests are staged.

Even Russia's Vladimir Putin is now receiving unprecedented push-back from his heavy-handed governing authority. No governments will be exempt
The age of protest has only begun. With new tools coming online daily, and the overarching reach of the awareness extending even further, those who are caught in the crossfire will no longer have the luxury of planning a response. They will need to react quickly, and correctly. If not, they will end up little more than footnoted casualties of the power of the people and the great consumer backlash.
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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Unfortunately, very few companies and even fewer government officials listen to the voice of the people on the important issues. Just as a couple of examples, increased taxation of the very wealthy has wide bi-partisan support...outside of Washington. Ditto the prosecution of dishonest Wall Street Traders and Wall Street Bankers, neither of which have been reality, despite strong pushing from the people. Google (don't be evil!) has just hatched an (evil) scheme to completely destroy any privacy you have while using their applications. Facebook....well, you know about Facebook. While the people have SOME victories, like putting SOPA on ice, we are roundly ignored on many other things. Also, those who shout the loudest and most obnoxiously tend to get the attention over the majority that speak reasonably for reasonable reforms in both business and government. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2012 01 25
"Ever since George Orwell published his 1949 head-turning classic 1984, people have had a lingering fear of government." You make this all sound so new, and exciting! Arguments against that being true: 1215 Magna Carta; 1775 US Revolution, 1787 US Constitution, 1789 French Revolution. These are just the highlights. The people have feared tyranny at least since Hammurabi's time. By David on 2012 01 25

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