Last week we witnessed a historic event as the president of Egypt, who had been in power for 30 years, was forced out of office as a result of 17 days of protests by the Egyptian people. In some ways this revolution reminds me of the revolution that took place in El Salvador 30 years ago. Both were trying to free themselves from oppressive regimes. Both were lead by youth who were sick of the status quo and wanted change.
To me there is one striking difference between the two revolutions. That is the role technology had in enabling the revolution. During the past couple weeks, people have debated about the importance of the internet to the revolution in Egypt. Some say the that the revolution could not have happened without Twitter or Facebook. Others say revolutions are about people and that is more important than what tools they use . I want to share my thoughts about the role of technology in this revolution.
Gladwell is half right
One of the most prominent people against the importance of “social media” during the revolution has been Malcolm Gladwell.
From Gladwell’s piece on social media:
“The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”
Gladwell’s main argument is that relationships on the internet are based on weak ties and revolutions are created by strong ties among people who trust each other. I think he is absolutely right about this. Sites like Facebook and Twitter do work by leveraging weak ties. For the most part these weak ties don’t amount to much because online no one cares about you.
As Malcolm points out, revolutions are dangerous stuff. You do not risk your life or the life of your family for weak ties. You need a strong connection to people already in the revolution if you are going to join it. This was certainly true in my father’s case. He joined the revolution in El Salvador because of his cousin. He, in turn, brought in his then girlfriend and my soon to be mother.
Caldwell is one of my favorite authors and a very smart man. I think he makes some really great points in his article but I also think he misses something. Technology changes the way we communicate and organize. Those changes have a very important impact on the way modern revolutions take place. To me, saying that technology does not matter is saying that those differences do not matter.
This is how technology changes things and why its important.
Power in Numbers
One argument against the importance of the internet in Egypt can be stated as “revolutions are about people.” Revolutions happened before the internet and it is simply a tool of the times. While this is true I think that is an easy thing to say when you are not the one being put in harms way.
When the government can murder your entire family for opposing them, it changes things. It makes it so much harder to become a person of the revolution. A benefit of modern technology and all the millions of people online is a degree of anonymity. While it’s impossible to be completely anonymous when a person is one of thousands Tweeting about change, it’s a lot harder for the government to single them out.
Strong ties and social networks
Ideas are like viruses. They spread from person to person through a society. If the virus is strong enough you get affected by it and want to bring all your friends along. Revolution is an idea virus as well. It’s an idea with a very dangerous and risky outcome. That is why you need strong ties to spread it.
If you are weakly connected to someone on Facebook or Twitter the revolution virus will not spread to them, the risk is too big. However, if your ties are based on real world meaningful relationships, then social networks are like throwing gas on the fire. The idea virus spread so much faster because you can so easily see who has been infected.
One of the effects of all of this technology is forced transparency. We live in a world where “secret” government cables can be published online for all to see. Where even the hottest tech company cannot hide their secrets.
During the revolution in El Salvador, many American politicians condemned the revolution calling it a communist uprising. Imagine if Obama or Bush tried to call the revolution in Egypt a “terrorist uprising.” Would anyone take them seriously?
The all seeing eye
In Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron uses an eye of fire to watch over middle earth. It flits around looking for Frodo and the ring.
“Concealed within his fortress, the lord of Mordor sees all. His gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh.”
Modern media coverage is kind of like the eye of Sauron. It constantly scans the globe for the next event to focus the world’s attention on. From an earthquake in Haiti to Chilean miners there is nowhere modern media can’t take us. We were even able to pierce the earth and get video from underground as the miners were recused. When the eye of Sauron is focused on your country you better act accordingly. If the Egyptian revolution had been met with bullets instead of fire hoses the global response might have been very different.
At the end of one of my favorite SyFy flicks, Serenity, the hero Malcolm Renalds uncovers a dangerous secret about the government. He turns to his friend, Mr. Universe, to help him broadcast the information across the galaxy. Unfortunately, government forces get to him before Malcolm can. On his death bed Mr. Universe tells Malcolm about the backup system he can use. With his last breath he says:
“They can’t stop the signal, Mal. They can never stop the signal.”
They can’t stop the signal anymore. The egyptian government had to shutdown internet service and phone services for the entire country and still they couldn’t stop the signal. After the government shutdown the internet Twitter and Google created a special number for people to call in their Tweets. One of the interesting quirks about modern technology is that there’s always a backdoor.
It’s harder to disappear
It amazes me that given everything that was happening in Egypt we could track the status of a single imprisoned Google employee. The sight 1000memories.com created a special page where Egyptians could upload names and photos of people who died during the uprising.
During the Salvadoran revolution people were frequently disappeared, their voices erased from history. When someone vanished, you never knew what happened to them. There was no website for them, no news coverage, they were just gone into the blackness, with only the families of the disappeared left wondering what happened.
Everyone has a voice
With the explosion of cheap portable electronics everyone has a voice. You don’t need to be a reporter with fancy equipment. People in Egypt were able to take video and photos of what was happening and post them online. The images weren’t filtered and didn’t need approval. They were online for all to see and react to.
Speed of information
One of the bloodiest incidents in the Salvadoran war was the massacre at El Mozote. Over 200 men women and children lost their lives in a brutal campaign to punish guerrilla fighters. I won’t go into the details but you can read about it here. I was surprised to learn that this event was not reported in any major newspaper until almost a month after it happened.
Could you imagine a major news organization being a month late on the Egyptian revolution? In a world with 24 hour news coverage information moves fast. We can watch in real time as events unfold.
I think Malcolm Gladwell is half right. Revolutions take serious action by brave individuals. The weak ties that are prevalent on social media do not constitute a revolution. What he gets wrong is that these tools have changed the way revolutions take place and that change is important.
I think Thomas Freedman explains it best:
“The Arab world has 100 million young people today between the ages of 15 and 29, many of them males who do not have the education to get a good job, buy an apartment and get married. That is trouble. Add in rising food prices, and the diffusion of Twitter, Facebook and texting, which finally gives them a voice to talk back to their leaders and directly to each other, and you have a very powerful change engine.”
In the 1980s, many young Salvadorans organized only to be brutally crushed by an oppressive government. The war in El Salvador dragged out for 13 years, with thousands of people killed and disappeared. Even after the war ended it took almost two decades before the party of the revolutionaries gained power. By today’s standards, that kind of change is glacial.
Contrast that to the revolution in Egypt which only took 17 days. I know it was a long time in the making but the revolution part lasted just over two weeks. How many lives were saved because the technology existed for their message to be heard, for the idea to spread and for people to organize effectively?
So, do I think all of this technology breeds revolutions? Certainly not. Technology alone does not create a revolution, nor does it guarantee its success. Last summer we saw Iran using these same tools with a different outcome. They also do not ensure there will be no bloodshed. If a revolution takes place in Iran again it might not be as peaceful as Egypt.
I understand very well that the importance of these tools can sometimes be overstated. They do not create a utopia and do not fix the world’s problems. They are just tools that make it easier to communicate and organize. If they did not exist, people would find other ways to effect change, but at what cost?
The shift that technology brings may seem insignificant, but to the people who risk everything fighting for what they believe in it changes everything.
Thirty years ago, when my parents started their revolution, they did not have these tools. There was no way for their voices to be heard. Their only option was to pick up arms and fight. A choice which they paid dearly for. Now anyone of us can create an idea, a website, a video that can influence millions of people and for that, the world has changed.