Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Case in freaking point

I've said many times (though perhaps not here) that no communicative technology is instrumental to a political revolution in and of itself, for its own special reasons. Rather, a technology can be important in this respect simply by virtue of being new. The revolutionaries, being naturally future-oriented and tuned to marginal or otherwise non-institutionalized means of movement and communication, can dominate and make use of these new channels; meanwhile, the existing regime, which at the point of revolution is almost always stultifyingly conservative, backward-looking, and disproportionately focused on the spheres it already controls, has not bothered to learn anything about how to lock down those channels.

This is what's really at work in all the "Twitter revolution" and "Facebook revolution" buzz. (Note that things are constantly called Twitter revolutions and rarely, in my experience, called Facebook revolutions; this has nothing to do with which is more useful but rather with which is newer and trendier at the moment.) I tend to get really ornery about all the "Twitter OMGZZ" and "IT WAS WIKILEAKS" coverage, but it's not because I necessarily think those things are irrelevant. It's because the fact that new communication technologies played a role in a political revolution is so not news that most stories on those phenomena place way too much emphasis on the particularities of the medium in question.

My classic favorite example is the role of the new railways in the 1917 Russian Revolution; as I learned in high school, the critical mass of people, and the necessary in-advance networking, could not have occurred without them. Of course, trains' ability to move people around was very important to that; but if there had been a giant public taxi service, or a local teleportation service, more or less the same thing could probably had been achieved. The point is not trains; the point is the ability of people to communicate and organize in ways that the ruling regime has not managed, or bothered, to figure out how to dominate yet. Today, trains are about as likely to be a major factor in a political revolution as wagon trains are. (Perhaps they'll get so forgotten as a factor that they'll come back around to effectively edgy, but it's a long shot.) Meanwhile, who knows? Maybe we'll have a recorded-Skype revolution someday soon (there's a huge potential for a charismatic politician there--not unlike what Ayatollah Khomeini did in 1979 with cassettes).

Anyway, I bring all this up because this Middle East Channel post by Ashraf Khalil does a great job of giving a medium its factual due without way overemphasizing its impact:

I spent the day moving throughout downtown Cairo trying to keep track of a dizzying series of fast-moving events. It started with a lesson on how a new generation of activists -- dismissed ahead of time by Interior Minister Habib al-Adly as "a bunch of incognizant, ineffective young people" -- is using electronic means to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Organizers announced long ago that the protesters would gather outside the Interior Ministry downtown, prompting police to lock down that area. But shortly after noon, it became clear that was a clever bit of misdirection, as a whole new set of gathering points was distributed via Facebook and Twitter.

Egyptians used the #jan25 Twitter hashtag to spread news and encouragement about the course of the protests. "If Mubarak goes down, there are going to be enough presidents in Saudi to make a soccer team!" read one representative tweet by @MinaAFahmy. Other tweets linked to Facebook groups that listed a series of new meeting spots and contact numbers.

As the day progressed, the series of scattered protests moved through different parts of the city, growing in strength as they joined up with other groups and induced onlookers and residents to join in.

Now that's what I'm talking about in terms of covering the role of a medium in revolutionary organizing! It gives the medium its due, explains how it's working, gives the humans involved full credit (rather than making it a technologically determinist story), and embeds it within the larger, and ultimately more important, human-social story. The real thrust of the piece, you see, is this:

The Egyptian government's standard operating procedure is to overwhelm any public protest with a massively disproportionate wave of black-clad police. As a result, most protests tend to boil down to the same 500 noisy hard-core activists hopelessly penned in by thousands of riot cops.

But today those numbers were reversed, and the police, at times, seemed completely confused and struggling to keep up. In one confrontation outside the Supreme Court building in downtown Cairo, the riot police attempted to lock arms in a human chain to block the protesters' path. Their effort, however, proved hopelessly ineffective -- waves of marchers simply overwhelmed them and continued on their path.

Which is to say that the point of the piece is that something real is happening in Egypt, and we should pay attention to it. The mechanics are just mechanics. Social media should not be the why; they should be a how.

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