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?