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 specialises 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 analyse 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 realised that many of us in the West—and I include myself squarely in this—act under the assumption that progression in digital democracy would come here first, because our technology and our democracies are more advanced. Then it became clear to me that instead such advances would come where they are most needed: in the Middle East.
This is why I keep calling for a discussion about an independent statement 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. I keep revising my list of principles, from this, to this, to this, to this:
I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble & act
IV. Privacy is a responsibility of knowing.
V. Publicness is a responsibility of sharing.
VI. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.
X. The internet shall be distributed.
This, to me, is a far more fruitful discussion than whether Facebook and Twitter deserves credit for Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutionaries deserve credit. They also deserve the freedom to use the tools of their revolutions.
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