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Jeff Jarvis: thanking the Gutenberg of Arabia

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
21st February 2011


The editorial from Jeff Jarvis is followed by an analysis by Charlie Beckket.

1. Jeff Jarvis

Excerpted from a right-on editorial from Jeff Jarvis:

“At the critical climax of the Egyptian revolution, one of its sparks, Google’s Wael Ghonim, told his followers on Twitter that he would not speak to them through media but instead through the Facebook page he created, the page he’d used to gather momentum for the protest, the page that had gotten him arrested, the page that was one of the reasons that Hosni Mubarak hit the kill switch on the entire internet in Egypt (here’s another reason). After Mubarak left, Ghonim said on CNN that he wanted to meet Mark Zuckerberg to thank him for Facebook and the ability to make that page.

After the Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther thanked Johannes Gutenberg. Printing, he said, was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace.” Good revolutionaries thank their tools and toolmakers.

There’s a silly debate, well-documented by Jay Rosen, over the credit social tools should receive in the revolutions, successful. abortive, and emerging, in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Jay compiles fine examples of the genre, which specializes in shooting down an argument no one we know has made: that Twitter carries out revolutions. (I would add the Evgeny Morozov variation, which incessantly wants to remind us—not that anyone I know has forgotten—that these tools can also be used by bad actors, badly.) No one I know—no one—says that these revolutions weren’t fought by people. As a blogger said on Al Jazeera English, Twitter didn’t fight Egypt’s police, Egyptians did. Who doesn’t agree with that?

This same alleged debate—curmudgeons shooting at phantom technological determinists and triumphalists—goes on to this day over Gutenberg, too. Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book, accuses premier Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, of giving too much credit to the printing press. He does not buy her contention that print itself was revolutionary and “created a fundamental division in human history.”

Like Jay, I’m a befuddled over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents? Why should I care about their complaints? I am confident that these tools have been used by the revolutionaries and have a role. What’s more interesting is to ask what that role is, what that impact is.

I was honored to have been able to call Eisenstein to interview her for my book, Public Parts. Her perspective on the change wrought through Gutenberg was incredibly helpful to my effort to analyze the change that our modern tools of publicness are enabling. When I asked her about the internet, she demurred, arguing that she’s not even on Facebook. (Though I do love that when she’s researching, her first stop is Wikipedia.)

At the end of our conversation, Eisenberg raised the Middle East, observing that “they sort of missed Gutenberg. They jumped from the oral phase to this phase.” She was quick to add that it’s facile and wrong to say that the Middle East is still in the Middle Ages; she’s not saying that, merely observing that “they skipped Gutenberg, for better or worse.” She said this before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and I was not sure what she meant.

Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

But it does matter that the revolutionaries of the Middle East use—indeed, depend upon—these social tools and the net. That is the reason why we must protect them, for by doing so we protect the public and its freedoms. If you follow Gladwell, et al, and believe that the social tools are merely toys and trifles, then what does it matter if they are shut down? That is why the curmudgeons’ debate with themselves matters: because it could do harm; it could result in dismissing the tools of publicness just when we most need to safeguard them.

In the privileged West, we have been talking about net neutrality as a question of whether we can watch movies well. In the Middle East, net neutrality has a much more profund meaning: as a human right to connect. When Mubarak shut down the internet, when China shuts down Facebook, when Turkey shuts down YouTube, when America concocts its own kill switch, they violate the human rights of their citizens as much as if they burned the products of Gutenberg’s press.

In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, I realized that many of us in the West—and I include myself squarely in this—act under the assumption that progress in digital democracy would come here first, because our technology and our democracies are more advanced. Then it became clear to me that such advances would come instead where they are most needed: in the Middle East.

This is why I keep calling for a discussion about an independent set of principles for cyberspace so we can hold them over the heads of governments and corporations that would restrict and control our tools of publicness. “

2. Charlie Beckett

If social media has an increasingly potent role, we need to know how it worked to better understand what might work well in the future. For those of us who like democracy and would like to see more of it around the world, this is more than a media studies debate. That’s why we need this new typology of media and networked political change.

“In an increasingly mediated world, communications become more important as tools and catalysts. New media technologies are a key and growing part of this, but they have to be seen in the wider context of mass media such as radio or TV. Increasingly, that mediation also happens across borders thanks to the Internet and satellite TV.

From the evidence I have seen – and it is still much too early to make any kind of empirical judgement – the uprising in Tunisia was crucially galvanised by social media, often operating in a networked journalism way with mainstream and especially international news media. The people involved say so. And it is difficult to explain how Egypt caught fire without noting how many people make a direct link to the Tunisian example seen online and on TV.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting aspect of these revolutions is not the often sterile debate about media causality or even media effects. The bit that intrigues me is the networkedness of the uprisings.

These two uprisings were not the work of organised conventional opposition parties or charasmatic leaders. They were not directly connected to a major event such as an election (as in Iran) or a conflict. They arose incrementally and were then accelerated by relatively symbolic individual acts combined into collective movements. Some of those acts involved great heroism and suffering, even death but generally they were diffuse.

This amorphous organisation was connected around nodal figures who all tended to resist conventional leadership roles. And the momentum was animated by collective, marginal actions (eg demonstrations) rather than a tactical objective (eg seize the Presidential palace). These coalesced in Egypt into that extraordinary physical statement of the crowds in Tahrir Square.

Take the battle for Tahrir Square, for example, when protestors faced up to the organised violent pro-Mubarak incursion into the demonstration. It was resisted in a collective but relatively spontaneous way.

The diffuse, horizontal nature of these movements made them very difficult to break. Their diversity and flexibility gave them an organic strength. They were networks, not organisations.

Now this is where media – and especially networked communications comes in. Bear in mind that this is new. Levels of Internet penetration and mobile telephony in the Middle East have increased rapidly in the last couple of years. It has given people new tools for political expression and activism. But this is what is significant. These new tools are different, they are networkable.

This suits the kind of new politics that appears to be emerging. Not just in developing countries either. There seems to be a similar shift in developed countries towards less rigidly defined political movements. But it is particularly effective in authoritarian regimes.

These networks may be made up of relatively ‘weak’ ties but, as I have written elsewhere, these are more effective because they connect people in a personal and diffuse way that is harder (but not impossible) for the authorities to control. And as we have seen, the networks that connect through weak ties can also be converted in a relatively short period into a public, real world manifestation with impact.

Go and look at how the activists and citizens used social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc. Go and see how they used the Internet to network themselves directly and to spread their activities to a wider world. It was effective. But when you look at it in detail you will also see that it was different to previous forms of political activist communication which were linear, vertical, directed. The flash mobs, the data maps, the texting, the blogs and all the rest were not organised like a conventional party election campaign. It’s not even like Samizdat which was, in effect, simply an underground version of conventional political written journalism. These are fluid, personalised, interactive, peer-authenticated communications that promote personal engagement and collective endeavour.

Social media also works wonderfully with one of the most significant political communications practices – especially in urban areas – word of mouth.”

In conclusion:

I think that fact of the crowd is the ultimate symbol of this new networked politics of change: diverse individuals networked into a meaningful and effective political network for change.

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