When, some years ago, Apple Computers used an image of Mahatma Gandhi to advertise their software, exhorting us to “Think Different", I was one of many Indians who were irritated, even offended. Here was idealism being subordinated to crass commercialism.

Yet recent events, from Tunisia to Egypt, have given a certain aptness to the unlikely pairing of corporate technology and radical political imagination. In West Asia, the Internet and its creations enabled political activists to organize against their hated leaders, bringing protesters on to the streets and into the public squares in an extraordinary non-violent movement that has upended fossilized regimes. Equally striking, it appears that some of the youthful Facebookers and Tweeters in Cairo and Alexandria were indirectly the progeny of Gandhian ideas and practices.

An American named Gene Sharp—a guru among non-violent activists, and a lifelong scholar of Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement— was a major source of tactical instruction to Egyptian protesters on how unarmed citizens can take on repressive dictatorships. A group of young Egyptian expatriates based in Qatar founded the Academy of Change—probably rather grander sounding in its title than in reality—and the Web nerds among them turned out to be close readers of Sharp’s work. The 83-year-old Sharp is very much Pre-Twitter Man. His main work is a 900-page book, Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Momentous: (clockwise from right) Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, rest near graffiti referring to the social networking site Facebook (Steve Crisp/Reuters); protesters at the Square (Manoocher Deghati/AP); and a boy waving the Egyptian and Tunisian flags in Tunis after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters).

A cliché of recent weeks is that, in Tunis and in Cairo, the revolution was televised. Al-Jazeera and CNN were at once reporting and in some ways making the news. When videos—often showing the regimes’ brutality—circulated on YouTube, they added fuel to the protests. But the often accompanying claims about Egypt being the first Facebook or Twitter revolution are no doubt exaggerated. Though a virtual uprising directed and galvanized the movements, these revolts—like every major popular revolt in history—were achieved by the massing of bodies in public squares, by the shouting of rousing slogans in city streets, and by the bravery of individuals willing to risk their lives for freedom. In that sense, the Tahrir Square uprising was in a great tradition that stretches back to Paris in the summer of 1789.

As I listened to the reports coming out of Tahrir, the central square of Cairo seemed in mid-winter to take on the air of carnival, with encamped families and strangers eating, singing, talking—and protesting. I was reminded of August 1980, when I walked through the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, as Lech Walesa led a decisive confrontation with the Polish generals. Whatever mobilization Facebook facilitates, there is still no more potent image of political power than that of massed individuals demanding their rights. More power rests in that than in the heaviest tank, the sleekest missile, the highest security wall, or the most befriended Facebook page.

The spark that actually set off the protests that brought people into the streets, first in Tunis, then Cairo and Alexandria, and now east of there, was the self-immolation by a 26-year-old university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi. Nothing virtual about that. Yet there is little doubt that new technologies have been an important driver in the events sweeping the Arab world and Iran.

Gandhi was himself one of the early adopters of new technologies of mass communication—in particular, the cinematic image. His artful choreography of the 1930 march to Dandi immediately made the event a world-famous climax to his Salt Satyagraha. Before he set off for Dandi, he handpicked three film crews and several photographers to accompany him. They did so, following him in motor cars, and the jiggly, grainy footage they shot would be screened across the world. The image of the Mahatma, striding across the dusty plains leading his band of followers, was burned into the imaginations of millions—the stick man showing up the imperial blimps.

But if Gandhi was a masterful manipulator of image and information, as well as a great mobilizer of people around spectacular events, he was equally a master-architect of organizations—able to build strong chains of command, and nurture lasting loyalties. He transformed the Congress from an annual tea party into an enduring movement—creating at once a language of association and belonging as well as forms of mobilization and action.

Also Read | Sunil’s previous Lounge columns

This was harder for him to do than we may care to remember, and the feat remains hard, even in the age of instant communication.

Nowadays, our imaginations are dominated by the metaphor of the “network"—a noun that has become a verb, a word that gleams with the possibilities of global connections, and that offers the illusion of permanent out-of-body experiences via the blue vistas of the WorldWideWeb. The term is itself networked to a cluster of terms—connectivity, and now through the social network, terms such as “contacts" or “friends". Those words require their quote marks, for they aren’t quite what they claim to name. The social Net is both an efficient and an etiolated version of human relationships, and of the politics that arise through such associations.

The protagonists: (from top to bottom) Gandhi’s Dandi March images helped spread his message worldwide (Gandhi, Phaidon, 2002/Wikimedia Commons); ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (left) and his Tunisian counterpart Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 1991 (Ghali Khaled/AFP); and Google employee Wael Ghonim, who was arrested during the Egypt revolt, addresses a crowd after his release (Dylan Martinez/Reuters).

The power and fragility of Internet mobilization is encapsulated in the metaphor we use to describe something that gains mass attention on the Internet: “going viral". It’s like a mysterious fever—that equally mysteriously subsides.

It’s also important to recognize that even as Facebook and Twitter are being hailed as great liberating technologies, they are still commercial operations, whose owners are subject to profit imperatives. While the sites bask in their current free publicity, what’s notable is just how desperate their owners are not to appear aligned with the political movements in Egypt and elsewhere. It’s bad for business, as they seek to expand into other neighbouring despotisms.

And as much satisfaction as we get at tyrants being taken down, we should also step back and note that technology is giving more weight to the agendas of educated middle classes than to those of the poor. Popular uprisings can never be domesticated, but technology facilitates the illusion of control—rebellion you can plan on a Friday night with your “friends". It offers the desk-bound a feeling of potency, transforming them at once into activists and leaders.

It’s important to recognize the limits of what these new tools can do for political movements. Yet the limits don’t nullify the power. Because the Internet is so effective in spreading information quickly, it can rapidly corrode entrenched and oppressive power. We do need to extend its reach.

That, of course, goes against what many governments would prefer. As protests escalated in Egypt, Mubarak tried to shut down the Internet; other Arab countries tried to block access to the social Net. In China—where access to Facebook is anyway restricted—it became impossible to search the word “Egypt".

Even the US is ambivalent about the political implications of the Internet. While the US state department funds efforts to create mechanisms that can prevent Internet shutdowns by repressive governments, and advocates a policy of Internet freedom, the same US government has attacked WikiLeaks and called for the closure of that website.

In India, governments don’t have to worry about shutting down the Internet. Power failures ensure a certain randomness of access for those who try to go on the Web. That access is anyway restricted to less than 70 million subscribers—a minuscule percentage of the citizenry. In India, it is economics—poverty— that keeps most people shut out of the cyber world.

That’s ironic. Poverty, after all, has been the wellspring of revolution. But now, a disconnect appears to emerge between the poor and those who have access to the technological instruments that help to make revolution. The interests of the Google executive and the vegetable seller may sometimes and momentarily align—above all, when they both recognize a profoundly hated enemy, a despot or tyrant, as has happened in Egypt in the past few weeks. But the interests of the Google executive and the vegetable seller are less likely to align than diverge.

The world of social networks is a world of clear-cut preferences: Like/Don’t like. That’s what makes it so effective and emphatic in the short term. It’s also what limits it as a political tool.

Cyber-democracy, in this respect like every form of modern democracy, has proved itself extremely effective in booting out the hated, at ridding a people of their despised rulers. But, again like every variety of modern democracy, it is much less able to actually render power to the people, to let them rule for themselves.

The last people who really managed to do that were the ancient Athenians—many cyber worlds away from us. So let us have the Internet to protect us from political malignity; but don’t imagine it’s a tool of democratic justice. Building a just state is a tedious, constant effort of increment and correction. Democracy may come virally, but it isn’t sustained that way. As modern Egyptians will soon learn as they work to build their nascent democracy, the routine life of modern liberty is dogged with disappointment, but essential for all that. I’ll be reading of its progress on the Internet.

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Later this year, he will become director of the India Institute at King’s College, London.

Write to him at publiceye@livemint.com