Gutenberg of Arabia

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. 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.

  • http://wewillraakyou.com Wessel van Rensburg

    Excellently put.

    Two comments, the middle East is not the only place where these tools are most needed. What about Africa South of the Sahara. Recently Vodafone (called Vodacom) in Mozambique’s SMS were disabled after public protests.

    And Zeynep Tufekcii made the point recently that the internet is taking us back into an oral tradition. So instead of going from oral to Gutenberg through the net, they are going from oral to oral. The difference is perhaps thewide distribution capabilities.

    Jeff, if you want to have a small heart attack read the British version of Gladwell.

    “Let’s be clear Twitter had nothing to do with it”
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/willheaven/100075775/mubarak-steps-down-but-lets-be-clear-twitter-had-nothing-to-do-with-it/

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Absolutely on Africa, etc. Only the tools aren’t there in critical mass… yet. Though I believe they soon will be.

      Agree with Zeynep. See my earlier posts on the work of Danish academics on the Gutenberg Parenthesis.

  • http://cyclequark.wordpress.com Mike Procario

    I struggling with the meaning of IV and V. Are they restatements of “We have a right to control our data.” and “We have the right to our own identity.” ?

    If they are I think the previous version was a bit clearer.

  • http://www.charliebeckett.org charlie beckett

    Hi Jeff,
    I agree that it’s time to move the argument on. But I think you would agree that the complex nature of the new communications makes it even more difficult to interpret than the printing revolution. (And that one took a while!)
    I think that we may be seeing a new networked politics emerging in places like Tunisia and Egypt that is partly a result of new communications technologies and partly a product of other factors. Regardless of causality though, it is clear that new media tools afford new possibilities to express and organise resistance and to campaign for change.
    That is why it is right that you point out that we must also address the properties of the media – for networked politics to work, the networks must also be free.
    I have tried to work towards a new understanding of the typology of media and political change in this post. I hope it might be of interest to researchers trying to grapple with the the complex relationships between society, the citizen and power in the digital age: http://www.charliebeckett.org/?p=4033
    cheers
    Charlie
    POLIS/LSE

  • Boz

    Three points.

    1. Rosen’s claim – one you repeat – that no one is making causal claims about the role of the internet and social media in the events in Egypt just isn’t true.

    2. Given your thesis, you ought to be perfectly comfortable with people making clausal claims about the internet and social media on those events.

    3. Your line about the silly debate suggests a false equivalence between those making causal claims and the curmudgeons. It’s quite plausible to say that the internet and social media played a fundamental causal role here – not the sole determinant, but a causal role.

    It follows that access to the internet and social media are ought to be seen as a fundamental right and perhaps a prerequisite for any people’s right of self-determination.

    Treating this as a silly debate is arguably just as dangerous as anything you point out here. People ought to be able to say this freely without eminent professors and media theorists telling us that no one is saying what they are in fact saying quite clearly.

    Who made you the arbiter of what questions are important, anyway?

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      1. Links, then. Where are your links to these claims? You only continue their Quixotic fight against windmills with this.

      • Boz

        Meh – yet more dismissiveness. Didn’t you post “do your homework” just a few hours ago? http://tinyurl.com/6gh3a5v Or try googling “egypt driving force” “propelled the revolution,” and so on. On the facts, content analysis would seem to show plenty of people making causal claims. If in fact those people win the debate — and they should — then that would carry a good deal more weight than falsely claiming no one is saying something that many are saying and thinking. The Rosen – Jarvis line of thinking seems to rule the debate out of bounds. Agree straw man arguments about in the Gladwell – Morozov – curmudgeon side, but alleging some people see causation isn’t one of them.

    • http://wewillraakyou.com Wessel van Rensburg

      Boz, this is actually a reply on your second reply, but I could not reply there.

      You misunderstand Jeff’s point, even on the SERPS you link to, even with those superlative headlines you will struggle to find ANYONE say, that “it was Twitter throwing rocks at the police”, “it was Facebook that lay prone to pray while water canons tried to dislodge Facebook from the bridge”. “It was YouTube that occupied the square.” “It was Tor that battled thugs behind lines of corrugated iron”.

      And to argue that those headlines do imply that insults every bodies intelligence.

      Try sending a link that actually makes any of the above points.

      The odd things is when the music industries sales drop, when movies are pirated, when newspaper circulation falls, headline writers often use superlatives of digital revolution etc but then we don’t seem to have this problem.

      • Boz

        Wessel, no, I don’t misunderstand his point at all. The fact that some people on one side of a debate make silly arguments, while no one makes other silly arguments, doesn’t mean that all arguments on that side of the debate are silly. Also, I don’t rely on links to do my thinking for me. I don’t check my brain at the door when I go on the internet. It is perfectly possible to make straightforward arguments for technology and the open access to information it provides as a | the primary factor in what happened in Egypt. In their haste to end the so-called debate with Gladwell, et al, those Very Serious People conclude that it’s impossible to make straightforward arguments for causation. It’s not. Here’s a pattern I find repeatedly among people Even More Serious than Jarvis and Rosen:

        – the free flow of information is a prerequisite to self-determination
        – access to the internet is currently a prerequisite to the free flow of information
        – free flow of information via the internet and social media are a | the prime cause of recent events in Egypt.

        And no, I’m not going to send you links. To quote something Jarvis said yesterday, do your homework.

        • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

          Links are evidence. You are saying, to substitute the words, that you do not rely on evidence to do your thinking for you. You are arguing with shadows that do not exist.

        • Eric Gauvin

          You’re so obnoxious with the links already!!! Why don’t you answer Siva Vaidhyanathan’s questions, Professor Jarvis?

        • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

          Eric, I was busy teaching all day and then fell in bed sick. I am not your monkey. As always, I’m sick of your tone and this is the final straw. No more from you.

  • http://blog.ericreasons.com Eric Reasons

    It seems people are really itching to have this argument one way or another. I think I disappoint when I reveal that my take on it is that “social media has shown itself to be a necessary, yet not sufficient agent of change in this revolutions”.

    On your list of principles I notice that only 3 of the 10 lines refer to the Internet. The other seven just have to do with human interaction, completely independent of communications technology.

    Of the three principles dealing with the internet (8,9, & 10), I want to say that all of them are:

    1) philosophically admirable…
    2) politically loaded to evoke a particular outcome…
    3) technically meaningless…

    (Lastly, as a curious side note: [and I am not at all drawing equivalence here] but only three of the ten commandments deal with man’s relation to God, the other 7 are just how we’re supposed to treat each other. You might be onto something here.)

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  • http://civic.mit.edu Andrew W

    “…an argument no one we know has made: that Twitter carries out revolutions.”

    No one? Maybe you mean “no one we know personally”? We now have four events dubbed the Twitter Revolution (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Twitter_revolution), with Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,618563,00.html) and and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (http://www.rferl.org/content/Moldovas_Twitter_Revolution/1605005.html) using it as early as ’09. While they don’t argue that Twitter carries out revolutions, it’s clear there are people who believe social media is necessary for a modern revolution.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your argument. But you know as much as anyone that outlets like CNN can’t go a day without ascribing social change solely to social media: http://edition.cnn.com/search/?query=“social media”

  • http://theoblogical.org Dale Lature

    Bravo , Jeff. I tweeted several quotes from this. And thanks for the Eisenstein insights. I need to find me my own copy of her great work.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Eisenstein’s book is amazing. There’s a condensed later version (which I don’t have). Even better, she has a new book, just out: Divine Art, Infernal Machine.

      • http://theoblogical.org Dale Lature

        Yeah, just replied to your tweets about it. Original work in one volume hardback, only $2,295! But I ‘d like toget that paperback for 60 someday

  • http://carsonnow.org Kirk Caraway

    Methinks the insecurity of the traditional media is showing by their poopooing the role of these new communications tools.

    But there is a point about tools getting too much credit. They are tools, after all. Facebook didn’t cause the revolution in Egypt. That revolution was already there. The tools just facilitated its progress, just like the steam shovel allowed the Panama Canal to be built. Do we credit the astronauts for going into space, or the rocket engine that makes it possible?

    “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.”

  • http://twitter.com/socialtechno Gordon Rae

    This does seem to be a one-sided debate. I’ve checked the links that dissenting commenters have posted and have yet to discern a distinction that’s any deeper than “guns don’t kill people, people shoot people with guns”.

    I worry that too many people are too used to management speak, in which it can be said that “an investment of x produced an output of y”. The relationship between the variables can be graphed, and the details are erased for the convenience of the ‘management summary’. The issue here is not so much whether the causal relationship is true or false, but that after we erase the details, there is nothing to talk about, and nothing to learn, either.

    Arguing about social media is no different from arguing about nuclear weapons, or cryptography. We would still have had World War Two without Bletchley Park or the Manhattan Project, but it would have gone on a lot longer, and a different side might have won. The details are important, the management summary is not.

  • http://www.grumpybrit.com simon billing

    This particular curmudgeons’ issue is not with the fact of technology playing a role in Egypt’s revolution. Rather it’s with the emphasis placed on the tools per se, as opposed to more germane issues. In his second piece http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html on this, Gladwell’s point was (as I read it) that technology’s role is the least interesting or useful aspect of the events. Which is not the same thing as saying that facebook/twitter are “toys”.

    As Nick Kristof put it in his Times column http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/opinion/13kristof.html?hp today “New technologies have lubricated the mechanisms of revolt.” I think ‘lubricates the mechanisms of revolt’ sums tech’s role up pretty well. Time to move on to more interesting aspects of what’s going on.

    Later Kristof says: “Maybe the most critical technology… is television. It was Arab satellite television broadcasts like those of Al Jazeera that broke the government monopoly on information in Egypt.” So I guess that means we should be discussing the role of satellite technology. Perhaps more useful is a discussion about what has effectively been censorship of Al Jazeera and the Arab view of world affairs in the US prior to Jan 25.

    That the minutiae of technology are something of a red herring is illustrated by your burgeoning list of principles. In truth there are three real principles that have always been crucial to true democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. Shutting down the internet inherently breaches all of three.

    What’s important is the core principle, rather than which switch got pulled by who. Creating principles for each new technology will not only prove to be a Sisyphean task, but ultimately will distract from the broader issues.

  • http://www.boydneil.com Boyd Neil

    Thanks for your clear-headed assessment of the problem of those who dismiss the social web’s role as a tool for connection. My argument is that, at a minimum, social tools gave young people in Egypt and Tunisia the confidence to act. That’s all, but that was enough.
    http://www.boydneil.com/blog/2011/2/3/protests-the-confidence-to-act.html

  • http://www.markus-lochmann.de Markus Lochmann

    I’ll put it the way my computer science professor did: “IT is an enabler”. The really new in this age is that

    – everybody is enabled to mass communicate (see Brecht’s radio theory)
    – everybody is enabled to consume independent media output

    To understand a VIDEO you don’t even have to be able to read.

    Now think. Illiteracy has been the greatest guard of dictatorship in the third world until now. But with a simple mobile device you can show unfiltered content to anyone. That, if anything, is new. And revolutionary.

    Twitter is like a virtual marketplace for Information of all sorts – most of them just useless. Facebook is like a virtual convention center – with mostly useless gatherings. What’s new though is the speed of information spread – no government is able to act so fast as the crowd in facebook does.

    I agree – media can (and will) be used for the bad too. The islamists are doing it right now – my thesis is that Al-Quaeda would not exists in it’s unstructured, hard to battle way without the means of modern communication.

    But: Just as Luther did spread new thinking, and by the way caused a bitter civil war in doing so, the ENABLING of the people lead to new thinking models which in the end lead to the European Enlightenment, Western Democracy and the development of Human Rights.

    The real dimension of the usage of these, say person-to-person mass media, is yet to been discovered. We don’t know whether freedom will win – or perhaps some kind of Tea Party idiocracy. Information alone is no guarantee of systematical stability – only sorted, evaluated and put in context, real informational value is being created.

    There lies the real challenge of the internet world – how to create RELEVANCE. In the best of all worlds, for the Greater Good.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Markus,
      Agree particularly on your point about the expanding definition of literacy. Wrote about that here.

      • Siva Vaidhyanathan

        Luther led to democracy and human rights? I hope you are kidding, Markus.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/wolfywyo Pat Wolfinbarger

    The American Revolution wasn’t about who had the most guns or largest army, if it was, I’d bet toasting the Queen today. It was also about ideas and communication. The printing press then, like the Internet today, provided a means for the powerless to challenge those in power. Information is power. Real power. When information is put in the hands of the people, there is always revolution and evolution – of government, of ideas, of society and culture. Information isn’t tangible like gold or guns, so those in power – whether they be dictators, popes or newspaper moguls – aren’t aware of the depths of transformation taking place among the perceived powerless. Those in power attack the messenger without understanding the message. The Internet, the telegraph, radio, television, the printing press, even art, are tools of transformation. The tools are meaningless without information, and information is useless without the tools to distribute it. Jeff and others who advocate safeguarding and making these tools available to everyone, will always be challenged by those who are vested in the preserving status quo and owning everything to do with information.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Well said, Pat.

  • http://faircompanies.com/ Nicolás Boullosa

    Important piece, as it’s being said right now via Twitter & Facebook (I got it from the 1st source, shared it with friends via the 1st and the 2nd).

    Thinking in Prometeus Bound, the Greek tragedy based on the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who was punished by the god Zeus for giving fire to mankind.

    Thinking about the moment in the Middle East as well. It may not happen the same way, but their Enlightement will deliver some Washingtons, Franklins, Jeffersons. Will it be crushed? Well, once the light has been given to mankind…

    Sooner or later. The keys to knowledge and freedom are set.

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    Jeff,

    If not you, there were certainly quite a number of “Twiiter”. ‘Net, and Facebook revolutions declared.

    But Internet penetration in Egypt is still very low (c 18%), whereas mobile (71%) and TV (90%) clearly have higher penetration, and t’was Al Jazeera that was running when the ‘Net was shut down, so by the numbers twasn’t the internet wot did it.

    And to quote other Egyptian revolutionary’s view:

    “I think it’s been incredibly condescending to diminish, if you will, what was an incredibly popular revolution the likes of which the Arab world has not seen, perhaps the whole world has not seen, and just to say that it was a Facebook event or a Twitter event.” — Parvez Sharma, filmmaker and writer

    Comms has been a part of every revolution since the Axial Age, but it is far easier to show that there were major revolutions before Twitter than vice versa :-)

    Also, if you go into the “how” revolutions happen historically, factors like young male unemployment, resource conflicts, income disparities and increasing literacy are better predictors than what comms tech was recently invented.

    In other words the ‘Net played a part, but to claim this was a ‘Net revolution doesn’t really stand up to analysis

    I do think many Western observers are largely (and in some cases deliberately) confusing how they watched it from with how it happened.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Links, please. I still see no links.

    • http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/ Jay Rosen

      Good grief.

      Who is saying it was “just a Facebook event or a Twitter event?” Do you even know?

      • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

        Ethan Zuckerman was the first person to take issue with those declaring “Twitter Revolutions” iirc

        http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/14/the_first_twitter_revolution

        Here is the first relevant Facebook revolution post from the page wot comes up when you Google “Egypt Facebook revolution” – from the HuffPo

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/11/egypt-facebook-revolution-wael-ghonim_n_822078.html

        D’you guys know Google, I can thoroughly recommend it, it’s not hard to use at all, answers tricky questions like “Who is saying it was “just a Facebook event or a Twitter event?, Do you even know”

        :-)

      • http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/ Jay Rosen

        Good lord this is stupid. Zuckerman, whom you are citing in support of the claim that Twitter causes revolutions, is a critic of this claim and is warning against that notion that Twitter deserves the credit.

        The Huffington Post link is quoting Egptian activist Wael Ghonim, who says (based on his experience in helping to start it on Facebook) that the Egyptian revolt started on Facebook. He may be wrong. He may be speaking excessively. But I don’t see how, if this is your evidence, that it’s condescending to the Egyptian protestors for one of the Egyptian protestors to speak about his experience. Perhaps you were taking about the reductive headline.

        I watched Ghonim on 60 Minutes tonight. He gives Facebook a lot of credit. He also gives the stupidity of the regime a lot of credit. And he gives the people who risked their lives by standing up to the regime the most credit.

      • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

        Jay, “To take issue with” means to disagree with. I thus was actually citing Zuckerman as evidence in opposition to the claim that Twitter causes revolutions, precisely because he is “a critic of this claim and is warning against that notion that Twitter deserves the credit”.

        You asked about who was claiming Facebook revolutions, the first one I found on a simple Google search was the HuffPo. The Huffpo link may be quoting Wael, but its headline is “Facebok Revolution” – without a question mark.

        And with all respect to Wael Ghonim, who has done some amazing stuff, his chosen medium is the Web, and Facebook specifically. I think he would be (judging by what he has said publically anyway) one of the first to agree that it was a lot of people, in a lot of ways, that made this all happen.

        And as I showed in my quote above, there are other Egyptan Revolutionaries, who disagree with the proposition that it was hugely due to the ‘Netz (and who by not being on 60 Minutes are therefore wrong?).

        I think what would be a more productive approach is for the Net Revolutionary Proponents to put forward the case of precisely how how they think the Net did help, and debate that. So far, the refutation of the case of those who say other factors were more important has largely been to argue they are (to quote) stupid and curmudgeonly.

      • http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/ Jay Rosen

        You’re having trouble finding the Net Revolutionary Proponents. That’s why you’re linking to critics of that claim instead of proponents. And you’re talking about headlines instead of what the articles say. It is this pattern, and not you Alan, that is stupid. You can try to claim that Wael Ghonim thinks Facebook was responsible for this revolution, but it won’t stand up to a reading of the 60 Minutes transcript.

      • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

        I have tried to do a more detailed analysis of what impact i asaw social media having in Egypt on my own blog (its quite long, with graphics – hence a link)

        http://broadstuff.com/archives/2424-Talkin-bout-a-Revolution.html

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    Au contraire sirrah, Links are only evidence if they point to facts, if they point to people who agree with you or earlier posts you have made arguing the same thing then they are not ;-)

    Anyway, I will shamelessly link to my post on the subject of Revolution 2.0 to carry on arguing with the shadows that do not exist, as its a lot easier to write big essays with a full blog editor:

    http://broadstuff.com/archives/2417-Revolution-2.0-for-Dummies..html

    In a nutshell I believe that modern comms sped things up, but that ultimately people have been having revolutions for centuries quite succesfully without the benefits of the ‘Net, and that the largest drivers are not comms but other socio-economic factors.

    • Eric Gauvin

      This guy seems to be the only one who’s making any sense.

  • http://www.hostmycalls.com James Waldrop

    For revolutions to start, revolutionaries had to communicate their ideas good and bad. Two centuries ago, town halls and public meetings were required for such communication. 80 years ago, Hitler rode his propaganda machine to power by controlling the media in Germany. Ever since, governments and others in power have sought to consolidate that power by controlling means of mass communication. The Internet represents the opportunity for all ideas to be mass communicated preventing abuse of power. And all ideas to be subjected to scrutiny and debate preventing bad ideas from taking root. Anyone attempting to control the free flow of ideas, like the US kill switch, wants to protect itself by hiding in the shadows.

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  • Siva Vaidhyanathan

    I don’t understand why Eisenstein would say “they sort of missed Gutenberg. They jumped from the oral phase to this phase.” Is she saying that the movable-type press did not exist wherever “they” are? Is she saying it existed but did not matter? Is she saying that something called “Gutenberg” describes a discreet historical process? That the process is unidirectional?

    There is a tremendous amount of historical and anthropological work on the dissemination of printing through European colonies (like Egypt, Palestine, Indonesia, India, etc.). So what, exactly, is she saying?

    I raise all these questions because I don’t understand how one could compare a quick political upheaval among literate, cosmopolitan, exporting advanced economies like Egypt to a 400-year multi-polar process of intellectual declension that happened in a feudal, pre-industrial environment.

    What “Europe” is she talking about? Do the Balkan’s count? Does Turkey? Russia?

    I am deeply concerned that you have flattened out Eisenstein’s work to make it say something it does not. Or maybe she has. Please clarify.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Siva,
      Siva,

      Far be it from me to fill in what the great lady said at the end of the conversation. As I said, I was puzzled a bit, too. And as I also emphasized, she went to pains — as then did I — not to say that the Middle East was, as some say with facile insult, stuck in the Middle Ages. She’s talking about a difference in the cultural impact of printing in various places. I think what she’s saying is that the adjustment from oral to text was simply different and that sets the stage differently today for the entrance of new tools of communication and connection. And what I now read into this is that perhaps Egypt is differently primed to get benefits from these new tools.

      I was trying to think of an analogy this morning. I’ll dig myself deeper but bear with me: Take Italy. There are protests against Berlusconi. People in Italy are using the same tools that were used in Egypt — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, whatever. And, of course, the issues are quite different — Berlusconi may be as or more morally corrupt than Mubarak but the impact on daily lives of citizens is profoundly different. Having said that, the state of the media world — not just orality but government control and repression — means the same tools have different impact. In Italy, it’s no big deal. In Egypt, the tools presented an opportunity that had not been there to share information and spread ideas and organize. What I’m saying is simply that the stage is set differently.

      It’s a question worth exploring once we get past the absolutely inane argument among the curmudgeonly vs the allegedly triumphalist about the credit these tools deserve (the intellectual equivalent of a bully in your daughter’s class beating up on a classmate and then shouting, “he started it!”): to look not just at the tools and their use and impact but also at the fields into which they are planted — what gaps do they fill, what opportunities do they present, what disruption do they enable….?

      Of course, I can’t do Dr. Eisenstein justice in extrapolating from what she said. All I did was acknowledge her inspiration in wondering about these things. As I remember, she said she may be dealing with some of this in her new book, which was delayed but is finally out. Like yours, I preordered it. Amazon says it is coming tomorrow.

      In short, if you object to what she said, by all means blame me. I did not intend to explore the idea — because I didn’t while we were on the phone. I intended to give credit for sparking a line of thought.

      • Siva Vaidhyanathan

        Thanks, that helps. What alarmed me was the Marxian notion of “stages of history,” one that reached its height of absurdity with the proto-capitalist-triumphalist book by Walt Rostow in 1960, The Stages of Economic Growth.

        The world does not change through discreet “stages”. So one cannot “miss Gutenberg” — whatever that means.

        Historians have dismissed this model conclusively, although every once in a while it slips into polite conversation. I was afraid that Eisenstein was doing that.

        I know I throw too much reading at you, but I really think you could benefit from reading Karl Popper. First check out Open Society and Its Enemies. Then read the essential Poverty of Historicism.

        The risk you take by making such an illustrative comparison it’s that is far from clear what the particular results of this thing you call “Gutenberg” were. Are you talking about democracy? Enlightenment? Reformation? For each of these (or any other) you face a challenge explaining why printing had certain effects one place and not another. For instance, how can one draw a direct line from Gutenberg to democracy when one happened in the 16th Century Germany and the other in 20th century Germany — and then only after horrible wars? Why was the reformation powerful and influential in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland but never reached Spain? Were there fewer presses in Spain? No presses until the 2oth century? Hardly.

        The claim for far-reaching cultural and political effects of printing can’t explain the radically different histories of Poland and Germany. And it can’t explain the fact that movable type printing actually began in 1040 during the Song Dynasty in China.

        All this is why invoking Eisenberg to make any point about the world today is fraught. While there are echoes of shared theoretical contours, the comparisons really don’t hold up. It’s clever and fun. But you can find yourself on really this historical ice. Worse, you could find yourself slipping into a European-centric vision of Whiggish history.

  • http://www.twitter.com/lmoliva_ Leandro

    A lot of good points, one which resonated particularly is the remarkable way that a social networking tool like Facebook in the “privileged West” can be used as something else entirely in countries where the free flow of data is precious and imperiled. But, to me, the most interesting take-away from Egypt, specifically, is the need for distributed, potentially mesh networked internet. It’s just too easy to turn off the lights. Had it not been for an outstanding presence of international media, particularly arab networks with great resources, the internet blackout would have been far more effective, and those social tools you refer to would have been greatly diminished.

    Again, for me, the biggest takeaway is fighting tooth and nail against a kill switch. In addition, I’m still struggling to articulate my deep hesitation with thinking about profit-driven entities like Facebook as agents of social change. Perhaps they can be, but only because they need only provide a superficial association, certainly not because FB itself facilitates social change or revolution, the fact that it does is incidental to its primary focus which is to data mine and monetize.

  • http://www.connectme360.com Brian Hayashi

    Bravo Mr Jarvis. Wael’s certainty — that posting to Facebook ensured the world would be watching — was contagious and inspired hope that Mubarak and his son could not act with impunity.

    While I like the notion of cyberspace principles, as a practical matter I worry that XIII “all bits are equal” is too often why net neutrality efforts falter. Why not “you shall not favor his video bits over my video bits”, which I think almost everyone can agree on?

  • Software Attorney

    As the little girl in the Poltergeist film said…”their baaaack”. Oh the hubris…I’m reminded of the heady days of the late 90’s when my software engineering pals were taking credit for all that was good in the world. What a pack of pseudo –intellectual dorks you nerdy trumpeters of the all powerful “social media” are. That some university students tweeted prior to marching may be true, but they may too have gone to the barber shop to hear that coot old Mustafa spin a yarn about the mighty Nasser. Barbers throughout Cairo might then exclaim …IT WAS THE EXISTENTIAL BARBER SHOP MEDIA THAT LUBRICATED THE “YOUTH REVOLUTION”. Except that barbers are not the self important frustrated little mommy’s boy phonies that I am addressing here. Numbers don’t lie…bloggers …do re-read above “Internet penetration in Egypt is still very low (c 18%), whereas mobile (71%) and TV (90%) clearly have higher penetration”.

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  • http://www.brooklynron.com/ Ron Howell

    On this — “In the privileged West, we have been talking about net neutrality as a question of whether we can watch movies well.” — I think the goals of the movement are being — dangerously — minimized.

    Were it not for that video of a Critical Mass cyclist being weirdly, life threateningly, and without provocation, shoved to the ground by a New York City cop, the cop would have gone free and the cyclist would have been charged with the crime with which he was brazenly and falsely accused by the officer.

    The wider point is that these types of things — including arrests of tens of thousands of young black and Latino men in New York City a year for, of all things, possession of marijuana — make Net Neutrality a significant rallying cry in the United States.

    The mere fact that happenings such as these are ignored in discussions by journalists is, if nothing else, proof of the need for info-sharing, multimedia virtual bullhorns right here in the U.S.A.

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  • http://www.macuncen.com Mac

    Rosen’s claim – one you repeat – that no one is making causal claims about the role of the internet and social media presence of international media, particularly arab networks with great resources, the internet blackout would have been far more effective, and those social tools you refer to would have been greatly diminished.

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