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Social Media is not Pro- Revolution By David Correira

Posted on Saturday, 3rd December 2011 @ 10:27 PM by Text Size A | A | A

Democracy, Capitalism and Technology

by DAVID CORREIRA

 

Among the many amazing images of social unrest that
have come out of Egypt over the course of the past week includes a
nighttime photo that depicted a group of young protestors huddled in the
middle of Tahrir Square huddled around a small fire kindled from
scrounged scraps of wood. The photo was used widely by dozens of media
outlets including The Washington Post, The Daily Kos and The Huffington
Post. What was most remarkable about the photos was how it was displayed
in the New York Times. Throughout the past week, the Times has offered
an incredible slideshow of photos taken by photojournalists from the AP,
Reuters and the European Pressphoto Agency. The Times prominently
displayed the campfire photo as a remarkable depiction of disparate
protestors making common cause over the shared intimacy of a simple
campfire. It is a nearly universal image. We have all circled around
campfires, brought together by the warmth and light of the fire, and in
doing so have shared intimacies and forged social bonds.

What was most interesting about the photo, however,
was the way in which the Times chose to display it. The campfire photo
was immediately followed in the slideshow by another nighttime
photograph of Tahrir Square. Another shot of protestors huddled in a
circle together. Another photo of protestors sharing a brief intimacy
amid enormous chaos. But in this photo the light they shared wasn’t the
light of a small kindling fire, but rather light emitted from a pile of
blinking cell phones recharging on a communal extension cord.

The uncanny familiarity between the two photos
illustrates a central theme of so much of the coverage of the unrest in
Tunisia and Egypt over the past month: the central role of technology
and its role in producing democratic transformations via free markets.
According to the photo, the cell phone has replaced the campfire as the
hearth around which we build our most intimate social relations. And the
cell phone photograph, juxtaposed as it is against the campfire photo,
suggests that while the source of social relations and intimacy (from
stone age campfires to 21st century technology) may have changed the way
in which we express those social relations has not. Cell phones are the
new campfires and we owe our social bonds and most intimate relations
to them.

This photo was the compelling visual representation of
an ongoing trope among many commentators, journalists, and political
activists. According to the Times and the Guardian, and debated on
Democracy Now and in endless blog entries and twitter feeds, the unrest
we have been witnessing in Tunis and Egypt is the “facebook” or
“twitter” revolution.

But this obsession with the technological essence of
the unrest in the Arab world—is it, or isn’t it the
techno-revolution?—has unfortunately been marked by a profoundly
uncritical debate over the role of technology in the political and
economic convulsions we have been witnessing. Deeper investigations into
the role of technology have been ignored in favor of the fetish of the
facebook. And this is nothing new. The fetish of facebook and twitter
echoes the fascination with the technological innovations understood as
inherent and progressive in capitalism. And because of it we have cell
phone revolutions.

While some commentators have been quick to dismiss the
absurd idea of a facebook revolution, these interventions they have
largely ignored the central way in which technology is understood:
technology as an autonomous, independent agent of change—THE causative
agent driving human progress. The ubiquitous objects of technology have
finally become so much a part of everyday life that they have become
invisible to critical scrutiny.

As a result many critics have responded to the
banality of claims of technological progress at the heart of the
Egyptian unrest with equally banal claims about the limits of
technology. We are subjected to discussions of the political
implications of technology that often slide into “he said, she said”
absurdities.

While much of the punditry on the role of technology
in the events unfolding in Egypt reveal the depth of truly shallow views
of technology, the political and economic context of the uprising in
Cairo offers, if anything, an antidote to claims of technological
determinism and an opportunity to develop a critical view of technology
that examines the political economy of technology.

First, (and perhaps the most obvious and most noted)
Facebook and Twitter aren’t “technology.” They are commercial firms with
services developed and deployed as commodities that circulate solely as
a means to capture surplus value and thus provide a return on
investment for shareholders.

Celebrations of technology, or out-of-hand rejection
of technology, that rely on the simplified view of technology (facebook =
technology) not only ignore the political economy of technological
development in capitalist society, not only valorize and reinforce the
dangerous notion of an independent techno-authority, but by doing so
foreclose the close scrutiny of technology and democracy in capitalist
society. We ignore the cultural, political and economic complexity of
technological artifacts and let off the hook the people, institution and
worldviews that rely on these tools to reproduce inequality and
injustice.

While many critics of the idea of a “facebook
revolution” have pointed out that the protests in Egypt have developed
largely without the aid of facebook or twitter, this phenomenon has not
been fully explored and does not go far enough.

A consideration of the role of technology in the
unrest engulfing the Arab world should consider how particular political
structures and economic arrangements have produced and relied on
particular tools of oppression expressed through control of everyday
objects of technology. Starting at this critical vantage point, instead
of around the virtual campfire, takes us somewhere else entirely.

The events in the Arab world over the past two weeks
have starkly revealed the authoritarian structures and reactionary
politics embedded in nearly all of the objects and artifacts upon which
we have come to rely on and refer to so innocuously as “technology.”

First, the same US corporations heralded as the source
of technology-driven revolution (facebook and twitter) are hardly the
most important US technology corporations implicated in the unrest in
Egypt. Narus, a California-based company founded in 1997 and owned by
Boeing, developed and now sells what they call “real-time traffic
intelligence” equipment to countries and corporate clients. Among their
many clients are Egypt Telecom and the U.S. super-spies at the National
Security Agency. Narus provides equipment that provides the capacity for
on-the-spot surveillance of internet communications. NSA conducts these
procedures on a daily basis in ongoing violation of the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act but at the continued pleasure of the White
House. Mubarak, his hand ever on the handle of authoritarian tools
delivered to him by his corporate friends, has used this capacity with a
vengeance over the past week, targeting activists and interrupting
communications. This hasn’t been the “facebook revolution.” If anything
it is the “Narus Revolution” brought to you by the friendly
international team of trainers in the National Security Agency.

Second, Egypt not only conducts surveillance, but also
literally controls access to digital information, demonstrated by their
rapid digital response to social unrest. They shut down all internet
traffic in Egypt because all internet traffic runs through one of four
commercial ISPs. They were ordered to shut down and they complied. The
internet is not the virtual commons, it operates as a virtual
marketplace in the same way that the mall does—it is private property.
It’s infrastructure owned and controlled by corporations and governments
on stand-by to protect their interests. As long as all you do is shop,
you’re fine.

Mubarak ordered UK-based Vodaphone to shut down mobile
phone texting. This was easy, of course, because in order for Vodaphone
to acquire a license to operate in Egypt it had to agree to conditions
and government control and oversight. They did so happily. Such is the
logic of capitalism. So much for “technology” as an autonomous,
independent agent of social change and democracy.

Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Joseph Lieberman
of Connecticut have long been working on legislation to make Mubarak’s
malevolent tactics our federal law. Their bill would give to the
President the authority to “declare a cybersecurity emergency,” and
“order the disconnection” of certain networks or Web sites. This
authority would “not be subject to judicial review.”

So much for “technology” serving the interests of
democratic movements. In the end, the particular objects and artifacts
of everyday “technology” are the tools of corporations and authoritarian
governments. And by now it should be clear that democracy and
capitalism do not cohere and the revolution cannot be carried out via
“technology.” Rather the struggle must become a struggle over the
social, political and economic conditions that have made the everyday
objects of technology—our digital campfires—nothing more than the tools
of authoritarian despotism and capital accumulation.

And over the past few days, this is precisely what has
happened in Egypt. The trite talk of techno-progressivism and
techno-democracy has been silenced by scenes of bloody confrontation
between Mubarak’s reactionary goons and protestors no longer huddling
around cell phone campfires. They are fighting in the streets as
anti-Mubarak protestors are breaking up bricks (“the broken-brick
revolution!?”) to heave at knife-wielding pro-Mubarak attackers as they
fight against a regime long propped up by its technological
authoritarianism.

David Correia is a Visiting Professor of American
Studies at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at
dcorreia(at)unm(dot)edu

 

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