You’ll recall Marshall McLuhan, the “medium is the message” man. He knew. He knew what the computer could do… this extension of ourselves. Like so many fruits hanging on vines… unpicked…disconnected in our connection. Could he have foreseen what we see today, the new fruit of the computer, social media, and its brilliant grapevine potential? Of social media, Wikipedia has this to say: “A common thread running through all definitions of social media is a blending of technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value.”
And who knew how beautiful this co- creation of value could be…different kinds of beauty…the likes of Bradley Manning, who’s put it all on the line for transparency and its sister, social justice. And way beyond the tarnished afterglow of the Obama campaign, we are presently witnessing trail blazing constellations of peoples of the Maghreb, of North Africa and the Middle East connecting the dots, brilliantly moving from numbness to finding faith and power in numbers; re-discovering the wisdom of the crowd. A Cairo activist of Tahrir (Liberation) square recently reported this, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” Social media and mass public movements increasingly appear to be a beguiling profusion of fusion. But what do they mean for each other?
A recent Al Jazeera broadcast here, asked a panel of experts whether social networks were in fact triggering social revolution. In the view of author Evgeny Morozov, “Revolutionaries will use whatever tools are at their disposal. The Bolsheviks made great use of the postal service and telegraph.” He added that not all revolutions are progressive and that Internet does not necessarily favor the oppressed over the oppressor.
Not to downplay the essential role of pamphlets, posters and placards in any socio-political movement, there can be no denying the critical force of recent online ingenuity in setting up platforms to get the message out. In response to the Tunisian government’s efforts to squash online dissent, stealing passwords, hacking into and deleting Facebook accounts, the cyber group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia. This managed to paralyse the presidential site, several key ministries and the stock exchange, whilst sharing online a cyberwar survival guide that among other things documented Ben Ali’s corruption. There was nothing the Tunisian government could do to slow the proliferation of Tweets from documenting events and spreading dissent. It appeared that a new power structure was emerging. Indeed, cyber power seems to provide the speed, connectivity, alacrity, flexibility, density, creativity and precision of movement needed for new masses of people to organize and mobilize in a strategic and decisive fashion.
These factors give credence to the view of author John Schell, recently interviewed on the Real News Network, that what we are seeing is the emergence of another super power; albeit “a disaggregated, decentralized super power” but with a new government, new people, new ideology, nonetheless. Even if this were to be overstating the case, are we not seeing the emergence of a major counter force, a second power, with a new ideology that won’t be towing the line so readily to neo-liberal influence as in the past? This proposition invites a question as to whether the social nature of the social network is triggering the emergence of socially conscious ideology. It’s all too soon to say. As Schell points out, there are many stages to a revolution; “The end of the story has not been written.”
Efforts to contain and prohibit this connectivity have both worked and failed; while new ways to link up or leak out are constantly evolving. At times it can appear so simple: Al Jazeera, broadcasting from a strategic headquarters of the Peoples Movement in Cairo, showed how when cell phones and internet were blocked, a satellite connection to the action on the ground was found. But there is an ever growing public gathering around social media, publicizing, socializing, advocating, normalizing and engineering what can be done; coders coding, creating and sharing, exponentially. That said, the lure of just hanging on the vine tweeting about fruit, is very compelling too. The political value of social media shall always be the kind and quality of the information we communicate.
Nevertheless, recently, so many of us, glued to monitors, have drunk in the struggle, transported by the co-operation, collaboration, discipline and understanding manifested by people surmounting fears and abandoning limited notions about who they are and what they can do. Social media seems to have personalized this experience, facilitating a tipping point of connectivity between people and their common concerns. But as activists and analysts have insisted, these events have not been overnight sensations. Certainly, Egyptians had been preparing for such a moment as this since 2005 and in the preceding years had mobilized strikes and anti-war protests. In fact, preparation for the revolution has gone deep into the everyday.
The link between political and social organization is clearly made. So that when government is de-legitimized, and suspended, the world doesn’t stop turning. In Cairo, in Benghazi, for instance, locals become an “assembly of assemblies”, to coin a phrase by sociologist Bruno Latour, assembled around matters of concern, not all of which are political in the usual sense of the word and include such things as traffic direction, refuse collection, food distribution, neighbourhood security, keeping the peace, and so on.
Latour maintains these assemblies are only possible because what connects us more than values or opinions, attitudes or principles are our worries and concerns. Though there may be no continuity, no coherence in our opinions, there is in what we are attached to. Independent, non-corporatized media, such as the Real News Network and Democracy Now, must know this, as they build their online presence and expose the conditions of neo-liberalism and countervailing struggles for change. Amy Goodman on a panel discussion here asks when the last time was we saw corporate media bring in activists to ask them to explain themselves. She argues that, instead, what we get is, “a small circle of pundits, who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us, and getting it so wrong.” Democracy Now’s Egyptian producer, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, on the other hand, could walk us among the crowds of Tahrir Square…no interpreter needed…interviewing until it became apparent that there was not one voice but many divergent voices all sharing a common vision for a participatory democracy in Egypt.
What do cyber power, publics and mass movements mean to each other? A great deal, it would seem. Significantly, the US appears to be at war with weapons of mass mobilization: the day Mubarak was closing down the internet, 2 US senators re-introduced an Internet Kill the Switch Bill. And President Obama is allowing media corporations to deliver the legislation that would privatize the Internet. What can any of this mean for Canada, more recently dubbed Harperland? Removing rights and freedoms and suppressing debate, our leader has proven to be an anti-democratic menace, no less. (See Dr. Jason Kunin’s article in Canadian Charger here for details.) Canadians have mobilized some powerful pockets of resistance over the last year and we’ve certainly no shortage of cyber gadgetry. So, I’ve been wondering why we’re not co-creating value by mobilizing a mass democratic movement.