Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Going Beyond “The Revolution Will (Not) Be Tweeted”

with 7 comments

by Luce

This blog has already broached the question of what causal role we ascribe to technology in historical events, particularly in recent revolutions and uprisings in Tunisia and now Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell recently asked whether the Egyptians need twitter to revolt (answer: No), reasserting his conviction from last fall that

‘high risk’ social activism requires deep roots and strong ties… surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.

I’m not sure if I’d go that far. But what has felicitously fallen into my lap during my qualifying exams prep? An entire book devoted to the question of Control and Freedom Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. While not explicitly focused on political uprisings, her opening paragraph goes:

We have lived, and still live in, exciting times, from the fall of the Berlin wall to the heady days of the dot-com era, from the events of September 11, 2001, to the ongoing turmoil in geopolitical relations. all these events have been linked to freedom: the triumph of the Free World, the free market, and the free circulation of information; threats to freedom from abroad, and the U.S. mission to spread democracy and freedom. All these events have also been linked to technology and networks: Eastern Europe’s collapse has been attributed to computer technology and broadcast/satellite television; terrorist networks turn everyday technologies like airplanes and cell phone into weapons; the U.S. military’s and intelligence agencies’ control and communications networks are without rival, if not without fault. But what does it mean to attribute such causality to technology and link freedom to what are essentially control technologies?

In my best grad student fashion, I’m going to pull two conclusions already from this paragraph: first that the idea of technology as politically transformative is an old story, a fact that itself makes the relationship between technology and political freedom quite interesting; and second that what may be uninteresting in all the recent analyses of the significance of the tweet is the superficiality of the analysis. “Did twitter cause the revolution?” is a silly question and provokes a yawn-fest of a debate. “What does it mean to attribute such causality to technology and link freedom to what are essentially control technologies?” That’s something to think about.

I’ll get back to you when I’ve read the book’s other 300 pages. Is it too much to hope that might happen in a few hours or so?


Written by Kristen Loveland

February 4, 2011 at 10:20

7 Responses

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  1. from a certain point of view, that’s what Marxism is all about. the technologies of industrialism, now laboring for capital, will develop until they overthrow the capitalist system. the very logic of industry is in contradiction with the logic of capitalism. the more recent re-boot of this idea is Hardt and Negri, and it’s immaterial, biopolitical production that is getting ready to burst the bonds of the neoliberal system.


    February 4, 2011 at 10:50

  2. To go back further, doesn’t everyone learn about the role of the printing press in the Reformation? (but who cares? Malcolm Gladwell tells me I should only care why people were driven to organize against the Catholic Church… I’m sure things would’ve still gone swimmingly for Martin Luther if individual bibles and propaganda were distributed at the rate of handcopying!)


    February 4, 2011 at 12:13

  3. I think DRDR is right on here, as is The Nation critique. The question of what is causing the revolution is not the same as what is facilitating the revolution. Both are important questions. Clearly social networking technologies like Twitter and Facebook are doing the latter. But I think Gladwell’s earlier point holds: tweeting and posting on Facebook are not enough. They are useful tools in terms of spreading information and organizing, and undoubtedly have helped the Egyptian uprising in that way. But at the end of the days, the people taking to the streets is what matters, and what is rightly getting the bulk of the attention. Facebook and Twitter were simply means to that end, but very important means in this case.


    February 4, 2011 at 16:31

  4. Interesting stuff. As a decidedly anti-technological determinist, I would tend to agree with Gladwell. At the very least I would argue that technology at best fills a vacuum, usually at the hand of capital and the state, only sometimes by those who would resist it. In disagreement with Eric, I would argue that technological determinism is blatantly un-Marxist. Even Hardt and Negri, self-declared Marxists often critiqued by other Marxists for their anarcho-syndicalism, don’t in fact make the case that “the technologies of industrialism” do any laboring for capital. Rather, networks of people use technologies to labor, and those same networks of people might just turn the technologies against capital.

    Andrew Hartman

    February 4, 2011 at 23:28

  5. Gladwell’s critics are missing his point and going after the technicality of “causation”, which is not really what he’s talking about. The debate is obviously over whether or not the internet and/or social networks more effectively facilitate mass protest on a scale that can threaten regime change.

    Evgeny Morozov, who is a more authoritative and detailed read than Gladwell, points to a number of clear reasons why that’s not the case: technologies as easily turned against populations (for propaganda or surveillance) as used by them, the internet’s much more large scale use as an entertainment device, facilitating apathy, the fact that countries like Egypt and Iran have fairly low internet penetration numbers (and even lower numbers of social media users).

    Of course, there’s still a question of whether a small and active revolutionary vanguard that does use Twitter or Facebook in a way that circumvents government counteractions can succeed in catalyzing a larger protest movement. Many people claim that this is the case in Egypt, though I’d beg to differ – the last decade has seen the rise of a number of protest and labor movements in the country, and the news from Tunisia (which had similar movements) was a clear tipping point. Still, there’s obviously room to disagree there.

    It’s interesting to note that this parallels Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. No technologically driven vanguard was responsible for the Solidarity protests that nearly brought the Polish government to its knees even before Glasnost was seriously implemented; radio from the west and broadcast TV had been available there for decades, and the intelligentsia’s attempts to seize power were easily coopted or crushed. Organized labor, responding to deteriorating economic conditions, did the trick.

    C Szabla

    February 5, 2011 at 17:57

  6. […] rhetoric of freedom and funding for election monitors, or the activism of labour unions, or the technologies like Facebook and Twitter, for fomenting, or causing, or aiding this revolution and speeding Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In […]

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