In both the euphoria and the apprehension that have accompanied the popular uprisings in the Arab Middle East that, no matter who succeeds them, have already resulted in the fall of two tyrants and the first credible threats to several more, there has been much talk about freedom and democracy and about secularism versus Islamism.
Predictably, if also dishearteningly, there has been an avalanche of the usual cyber-utopian techno-babble about the emancipatory potential of the Bluetooth devices and Twitter feeds for which authoritarian tyrannies are said to be no match. The political simple-mindedness of this may not always be at the level of a Tim Connors, the California venture capitalist pitching a “Government 2.0” app (I am alas not making this up) who began a blog post on the subject with the following sentence: “10 folks in a small apartment in Egypt used social media and cell phones to start a revolution, and 17 days later the president of many decades is out of power.”
But it is not all that far from it either. Throughout its extensive coverage of the events in Tahrir Square, CNN devoted an enormous amount of time to what was appearing on blogs or being tweeted, and to the Mubarak regime’s decision, as the anti-government demonstrations gathered strength, to shut down access to the internet and cell phones, as if, just as Marshall McLuhan had predicted, the medium really was the message (Hint: it isn’t: never was, never will be), and, without internet, access the revolution might be stymied, but with it, it was irresistible. And, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, went back and forth about what position to take on whether Mubarak should stay or go, the one subject about which they seemed in no doubt and about which their indignation knew no bounds, was that he should turn the internet and the mobile phones back on.
H. L. Mencken, please call your office! Were information technology not the Golden Calf of our age, no sensible person could possibly believe that that the North African revolution took place thanks to social media. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his fine new book, The Net Delusion, this is the same sort of utopian credulousness that led Marx to write that the communications revolution of the railways under the Raj would lead Indians to give up the caste system.
This is not to say that social networks don’t matter; they matter a lot. But they do not incarnate freedom, do not bring about some final, heaven-like stage of human history. Indeed, if there was a proximate cause, on the order of Connors’ “10 folks in a small apartment using social networks,” to the Tunisian uprising, it was that least virtual of political acts—the decision of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid who burned himself to death in protest over the police seizing his cart and the produce he was trying to sell, and, more generally, over police brutality and grinding unemployment, poverty, and lack of opportunity. That was the action that provoked the first anti-government demonstrations in Tunisia and soon spawned other self-immolations from Egypt to Mauritania.
But self-immolations do not fit into the cyber-utopian narrative. Like suicide bombings, they are simply too far removed from almost all of us who come from the West. In contrast, tweets and Facebook and the rest of life in cyberspace are essential to the way we now live (if we don’t join in, we’re curmudgeons, contrarians, etc.—the Silicon Valley equivalent, I suppose, of the old Marxist condemnation of those who were “on the wrong side of history”). So, in rooting for the tweeters in Tahrir Square, we are actually rooting for ourselves.
But what’s wrong with that, you may ask, if what we are supporting in Tunis or in Cairo, and hoping for in Algiers and Tripoli and Sana and Nouakchoutt, are the best of our ideals both personally and as societies—our belief in individual freedom and in representative democracy? To which the answer is: nothing, so long, that is, as we do not confuse our situation with theirs. My fear, though, is that this is precisely what we are doing.