Redirected on a Sunday Morning–Thoughts on Technology and Revolution

I opened the laptop because as I sat sipping coffee a recently finished but still unreviewed tome sat taunting me. But on the way here I got sidetracked by Matthew Ingram’s post on Malcolm Gladwell still not getting the role of social media and activism. Readers, if there are any, know that I’m skeptical about Gladwell but I’m an equal opportunity skeptic so I read Ingram and Evgeny Morozov’s post on FP.

Let me be clear, I have no idea whether events in Tunisia and Egypt have been driven by social media technologies. What’s clear to me is that if in the not so distant past that journalism was considered the first draft of history then the tweets and FB posts and blog posts (written at safe remove from events on the ground) are not even that–they are the raw material that someday historians will utilize in assembling the (still unfinished) story of what went on.

(For those about to protest, history really does need to be written by professionals. Go to Amazon and search for ‘historiography’ in the books section and you’ll have 11,000 plus choices. Any one of them will probably demonstrate to you that your knowledge of how historians do their work is limited.)

I think, though, that those involved in this discussion make a fundamental mistake. In their advocacy for their beliefs about the possibilities of social media (and despite the marshalling of factual material a lot of this is advocacy) they ignore history.

All revolutions make use of the available technologies. The Iranian revolution was instigated in part by circulation of the same pre-MP3 technology that Deadheads embraced–the cassette tape. Go further back and our own War for Independence was fueled by pamphlets–printed matter but technology nonetheless. Strike a middle ground, say 1917, and you can bet that the Bolsheviks used telegraphs and telephones when they could. (This is the perfect place for a footnoted reference but the web is weak on this subject and my own library on the subject is sadly depleted.)

It would not be surprising if new technologies played a role in recent events. It’s doubtful that they are a causal factor or even the factor that makes a difference. Someone with the time should really try to get a handle on the numbers of people in these countries using social media. There’s a well-established math about networks that will tell you if the numbers even make sense.

(For more on why so much of what is said about social media and networks could be wrong see Judith Kleinfeld’s paper on the problems with the small world theory.)

What if everyone is right–that social media helped fuel social action and that other social forces also played a role–and yet no one is? What do I mean? For all the words spent on this subject so far what has not merited enough mentioned is the Egyptian government’s shutdown of the internet in that country.

People who believe in the democratizing power of social media tools ought to consider that the lone, brave, would-be change agent with a laptop or smartphone accesses these distributed networks though infrastructure controlled by governments or big corporations. Look at how quickly banks and Amazon dropped WikiLeaks (and I hold no brief for Assange), then consider the actions in Egypt.

In reality, we ought to be concerned about turning too much power over to such networks.

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