Other posts related to power-of-technology

 | March 17, 2011 9:01 pm

Note: I have a tentative release date for the book in electronic format, March 31. The print volume will follow shortly. At this point, I am mostly removing things, in the words of Nancy Duarte, “murdering my darlings.” Below, you will find one essay that has been scrapped. It talks about the enabling power of technology, within the context of the Egyptian reovlution of January 25.

On the 11th of February, 2011, a miracle happened. After eighteen days of protest, Hosni Mubarak, the dictator of Egypt for nearly thirty years, resigned as president of his country. But like the despots of earlier times, he did not go willingly.

Starting eighteen days earlier, on January 25th, demonstrators had taken to the streets and public squares of Cairo and Alexandria to demand a voice in their government. They were upset with the pervasive poverty, terrible government corruption, and police brutality which had become its most obvious outward manifestation. They were angry that political dissidents, like Khaled Saeed, could be brutally murdered in the street by members of the security establishment, or, that a Google marketing manager could disappear for asking, “Why?”

Note: Khaled Saeed was a Egyptian programmer who died after being arrested by the Egyptian police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. Photos of his corpse were spread by Wael Ghonim and others on the Facebok group, “We are all Khaled Said,” inciting outrage over his death. Later, Ghonim himself would disappear for 11 days, abducted by officers of the Egyptian state police. He was later released after significant public outcry, which played an important role in Mubaraks resignation.

But while the story of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power is similar to that of other dictators, it was also distinct in one important aspect. Since ancient times, successful revolutions have been the products of careful organization. The marches, protests, and civil disobedience of the American and South African Civil Rights movements weren’t spontaneous. They didn’t just happen. They required articulate leaders — Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, respectively — and years of political organization.

What makes the Egyptian revolution of January 25th so remarkable, though, was the apparent lack of formal organization. In contrast to the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle against Apartheid — or older revolutions, such as the American and French revolutions — the Egyptian Revolution seemed to spring out of nothing.

Certainly, there were agitators. Asmaa Mahfouz, a twenty-six year old blogger and activist, was instrumental in cataloging and exposing the abuses of the regime, for example, as were individuals like Khaled Saeed and Wael Ghonim. But for the most part, though, groups traditionally associated with the political opposition — such as the National Progressive Unionist Party (the Tagammu) and the Muslim Brotherhood — explicitly stated that they would not participate in protests and demonstrations.

The hard work of organizing, constructing alliances, and preparing for the protests happened invisibly. Not just underground, but completely out of sight. It made use of Twitter, Facebook, and other new-fangled web technologies. No one group was responsible for it. In many ways, there were no groups responsible, just networked individuals. And in contrast to the revolutionary spokesmen of yore, the administrators of these websites remained largely anonymous. Their great contributions consisted of a virtual forum for messages to spread and like-minded individuals to connect. Of his involvement, Ghonim commented:

[The] revolution is like Wikipedia … Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people … Revolution in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone gave small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution, and no one is the hero in that picture.

Note: The comments were made during an interview on the CBS news show, “60 Minutes” on February 13, 2011. During the interview, Ghonim described the strategies used by the Egyptians as “Revolution 2.0.” News and plans were passed amongst forum members, who were then encouraged to tell friends, acquaintances, and contacts so that “everyone knew.” The mediums — Facebook, Twitter, text-message, and email — were secondary to the strategy: get the message out quickly and organically.

The actual “content” of the revolt — grievances, evidence of corruption, plans, photos, stories of abuse — was very similar to those of the past. In this, Malcolm Gladwell makes an important point:

People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone — and they ended up with hundreds of thousands in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years — and in the French Revolution the crowd in the street spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.

Note: See Malcolm Gladwell, “Does Egypt Need Twitter,” The New Yorker, February 2, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html#ixzz1CqneJJOu.

But the way that the Egyptian protests played out, the speed at which groups rallied together, and how the Egyptian reformers communicated with the international community had a vastly different feel to them. Technology enabled the protesters to formulate and move their ideas to a hugely diverse audience. In essence, it allowed for them to be more effective, and because of that, Mubarak’s government collapsed in days, rather than months or years.

Technology, in all of its forms, has typically had such effects. Spoken language, for example, allowed for stories and wisdom to pass from one generation to the next. Writing then built on the foundation of spoken communication, and allowed for rising generations to “hear” the precise words of those who had come before. Literally, allowing the dead to speak. Gutenberg’s marvelous printing press then made it easier to disseminate those thoughts to an enormous audience.

Each new development — language, writing, printing — made previously difficult tasks more efficient. Language communicates thought, writing preserves it, and printing disseminates it. But in addition to allowing people to do old things in new ways, it also prompted novel innovations, and, its effect in the Egyptian revolution should not be understated.

Technology made it easier for potential revolutionaries to locate one another, share information, coordinate their actions, and execute their plans. It also made it possible for an everyday group of Egyptians, people like Wael Ghonim, to bring down the government of a dictator.