Have you ever heard of the Leica Revolution? No?
That’s probably because folks who don’t know anything about “branding” insist on calling it the Mexican Revolution. An estimated two million people died in the long struggle (1910-1920) to overthrow a despotic government and bring about reform. But why shouldn’t we re-name the revolution not after a nation or its people, but after the “social media” that had such a great impact in making the struggle known all over the world: the photographic camera? Even better, let’s name the revolution not after the medium itself, but after the manufacturer of the cameras that were carried by people like Hugo Brehme to document the atrocities of war. Viva Leica, cabrones!
My sarcasm is, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to point out how absurd it is to refer to events in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution, and so on. What we call things, the names we use to identify them, has incredible symbolic power, and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands with struggles for human dignity. I agree with Jillian York when she says:
“… I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight. But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”
Granted, as Joss Hands points out, there appears to be more skepticism than support for the idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are primarily responsible for igniting the uprisings in question. But that hasn’t stopped the internet intelligentsia from engaging in lengthy arguments about the role that technology is playing in these historic developments. One camp, comprised of people like Clay Shirky, seem to make allowances for what Cory Doctorow calls the “internet’s special power to connect and liberate.” On the other side, authors like Ethan Zuckerman, Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have proposed that while digital media can play a role in organizing social movements, it cannot be counted on to build lasting alliances, or even protect net activists once authorities start using the same tools to crack down on dissent.
Both sides are, perhaps, engaging in a bit of technological determinism–one by embellishing the agency of technology, the other by diminishing it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, and philosophers of technology settled the dispute of whether technology shapes society (technological determinism) or society shapes technology (cultural materialism) a while ago: the fact is that technology and society mutually and continually determine each other.
So why does the image of a revolution enabled by social media continue to grab headlines and spark the interest of Western audiences, and what are the dangers of employing such imagery? My fear is that the hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube revolution performs two functions: first, it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts, and second, it whitewashes the role of capitalism in suppressing democracy.
To elaborate, the discourse of a social media revolution is a form of self-focused empathy in which we imagine the other (in this case, a Muslim other) to be nothing more than a projection of our own desires, a depoliticized instant in our own becoming. What a strong affirmation of ourselves it is to believe that people engaged in a desperate struggle for human dignity are using the same Web 2.0 products we are using! That we are able to form this empathy largely on the basis of consumerism demonstrates the extent to which we have bought into the notion that democracy is a by-product of media products for self-expression, and that the corporations that create such media products would never side with governments against their own people.
It is time to abandon this fantasy, and to realize that although the internet’s original architecture encouraged openness, it is becoming increasingly privatized and centralized. While it is true that an internet controlled by a handful of media conglomerates can still be used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and all over the world), we need to reconsider the role that social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter will play in these struggles.
The clearest way to understand this role is to simply look at the past and current role that corporations have played in “facilitating” democracy elsewhere. Consider the above image of the tear gas canister fired against Egyptians demanding democracy. The can is labeled Made in U.S.A.
But surely it would be a gross calumny to suggest that ICT are on the same level as tear gas, right? Well, perhaps not. Today, our exports encompass not only weapons of war and riot control used to keep in power corrupt leaders, but tools of internet surveillance like Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the Egyptian government to track down and “disappear” dissidents.
Even without citing examples of specific Web companies that have aided governments in the surveillance and persecution of their citizens (Jillian York documents some of these examples), my point is simply that the emerging market structure of the internet is threatening its potential to be used by people as a tool for democracy. The more monopolies (a market structure characterized by a single seller) control access and infrastructure, and the more monopsonies (a market structure characterized by a single buyer) control aggregation and distribution of user-generated content, the easier it is going to be for authorities to pull the plug, as just happened in Egypt.
I’m reminded of the first so-called Internet Revolution. Almost a hundred years after the original Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched an uprising in southern Mexico to try to address some of the injustices that the first revolution didn’t fix, and that remain unsolved to this day. But back in 1994, Subcomandante Marcos and the rest of the EZLN didn’t have Facebook profiles, or use Twitter to communicate or organize. Maybe their movement would have been more effective if they had. Or maybe it managed to stay alive because of the decentralized nature of the networks the EZLN and their supporters used.
My point is this: as digital networks grow and become more centralized and privatized, they increase opportunities for participation, but they also increase inequality, and make it easier for authorities to control them.
Thus, the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to continue the struggle after the network has been shut off. In fact, the struggle is going to be against those who own and control the network. If the fight can’t continue without Facebook and Twitter, then it is doomed. But I suspect the people of Iran, Tunisia and Egypt (unlike us) already know this, out of sheer necessity.
[Ulises A. Mejias is assistant professor at the State University of New York, College at Oswego. His book on digital networks and inequality is coming out in Fall 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.]
[UPDATE: This post has been linked to by Forbes.com and The Huffington Post, mentioned by Inside Higher Ed and Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, reproduced in the French online magazine OWNI, the P2P Foundation wiki, and published in The Post-Standard's opinion section (central NY's leading newspaper).]