Posts about egypt

Public Parts: atomize & reform

I’ve been rewriting the introduction to Public Parts — both because it needs it and because of events in Egypt and elsewhere. This segment, from the end of the introduction, is related to the post below. I thought I’d share it with you as it adds some more thinking on the same topics:

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Technology is forcing us to question centuries-old assumptions about the roles of the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy. In recent centuries, being public “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, with our individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom but that freedom is often used to collect into new societies.

Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.

The net is everyone’s printing press. I don’t mean it’s a medium; I just said it’s not. I mean it’s our tool of disruption, the catalyst that breaks old bonds once again and sets us loose to explore our natures anew. This transformation takes trivial form: we no longer all watch the same, shared news with the same, one-size-fits-all viewpoint. R.I.P. Uncle Walter. Clearly, this transformation also takes earth-shattering form: revolutions, dead industries, economic upheaval. We atomize. We reform. We want to be apart—too far apart, some fear. See the book Bowling Alone, in which Robert Putnam worries that we are becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and society. But then we want to be together. That book inspired entrepreneur Scott Heiferman to found Meetup.com, a platform that lets groups organize meetings in person around whatever interests they have, from dogs to dance, sci-fi to society. Atomize. Reform. We can now find the publics we wish to join based not on the gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us by others—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, hunters, birders, even privacy advocates.

Publicness is an emblem of epochal change. It is profoundly disruptive. Publicness threatens institutions whose power was invested in the control of information and audiences. That’s why we hear the incumbents protest this change and warn of its dangers. Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at their expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say. So if they are to survive and prosper, companies, governments, and institutions must learn to deal with us at eye-level, with respect for us as individuals and respect for the power we can now wield as groups—as publics. Many will not survive and will be replaced by entrepreneurs and insurgents, both good and bad.

The progression toward a more public society is apparent and inevitable; resistance is futile. But the form our new society will take is by no means predestined. We are at a critical moment with many choices. We who hold the tools of publicness hold keys to the future. We must decide how to use them. Rather than baying at the moon and cursing the tide, we would be wise to find opportunity and advantage, to decide the kind of future we want to build. . . . Now is the moment and we are the people to give shape to our next society. In each of our roles as individuals, parents, employees, employers, citizens, officials, and neighbors, each of us is deciding how private to be (safe, protective, closed, sometimes solitary, often anonymous) and how public (open, collaborative, collective, and vulnerable).

I remember watching the drama of Egypt’s revolution play out on Twitter. Silly little Twitter. It was supposed to be made for nothing more than sharing the narcissistic trivia of our lives as we each answered the simple question: What are you doing now? As if the world should care, right? During the Egyptian revolt, I tweeted how jarring the contrast could be between the very everyday updates of people I knew—meals, dates, travels, shows, complaints, cats—flowing next to the messages of courage, fear, exhilaration, and determination I saw from the brave people of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, strangers I was coming to know and respect by the minute.

@ghonim—Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was credited with helping spark this revolution using a Facebook page—had been held prisoner by Hosni Mubarak’s police; his followers and fans would believe he was free only when they saw him say so in a tweet. He used the tool to deliver news, inspiration, and support: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.” On the night 17 days into the 18-day revolution when the people of the square believed the dictator Mubarak would leave—but he did not—@ghonim had tweeted, “Heading to Tahrir” and “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished.” The next morning, Mubarak was not gone. The work of the revolution not yet over, Ghonim told his followers and the media that he would not be speaking through the press but through his Facebook page, his tool of publicness. And then Mubarak did leave. “Welcome back, Egypt,” he tweeted. “They lied at us. Told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days.”

At every minute in this momentous story, it was evident how precarious the next minute would be, the one after that only more so. Mubarak might or might not leave sooner or later. The army could shift this way or that. Thugs with rocks could return to the square. Authorities could use the internet themselves to spread misinformation and find and arrest the protestors. Out of habit, I watched the news progress on TV, but most of the time, even Al Jazeera English had only a telephoto shot of the square from a safe distance with commentary that could do little more than repeat itself. TV could hear few voices from the square.

On Twitter, a virtuoso of the form, @acarvin—National Public Radio social-media strategist Andy Carvin—spent hours and days constantly curating the best he could find from the people who were on the ground. He passed on news and debunked rumors and asked the people who were there what was really happening. He quoted—retweeted, that is—people like @sandmonkey, a brave blogger who six years before began to use these tools to share his ideas and experiences in Egypt with the world. Early in my blogging days, I had learned much from him. After the protestors’ victory he blogged, “Tonight will be the first night where I go to bed and don’t have to worry about state security hunting me down, or about government goons sent to kidnap me; or about government sponsored hackers attacking my website. Tonight, for the first time ever, I feel free … and it is awesome!” Sandmonkey replaced his cartoon avatar on Twitter with a picture of the real him and published his name, Mahmoud Salem.

Even as you read this [the book is coming out in the fall of 2011], months after the revolution began, it is, of course, far too soon to know how this story will turn out. There is no script and not even a dramatis personae of leading actors. @ghonim, who brought many people to Facebook, Twitter, and the square, demurred as a leader, vowing on Twitter that he would return to his normal life at Google when this work was done. What kind of society Egypt can build and maintain post-Mubarak teeters on so many risks, needs, and warring interests, but also on so many new opportunities. Just as Egypt’s society of the future could go many ways, so could ours and other societies yet to emerge.

The new age has its doubters. Young curmudgeon Malcolm Gladwell says, “surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protestors may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Well, I have no doubt that the tools of publicness played a role in helping a true Egypt of the people rise from silence to be heard at last. These tools enabled them to share their information, their frustration, and their dreams. That is why Mubarak shut down the internet and mobile phones completely, because they were a threat—and the fact that any one man could do that must worry us all. But even Mubarak had to turn it back on, because the internet is that vital to life now. Yet in the end, Gladwell is at least right about this: the tools are only tools. The revolution is the people’s. As a blogger reminded us on Al Jazeera English, Twitter did not fight Mubarak’s police. Egyptians did. Facebook will not create the new society. But here’s where Gladwell’s wrong: This new society used Facebook to help shape itself.

“What kind of world would make the values of both publicness and privacy equally accessible to all?” asks Michael Warner. That is our challenge: to find a new balance between us as free individuals and as members of a public who freely join together to build better, more open, more generous, and more accountable companies, markets, communities, governments, schools, relationships, and lives. There is a need for privacy, its cautions, and its advocates, to be sure. But publicness also needs its advocate. That is this book.

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.

Support for the disconnected of Egypt

Governments are the single point of failure for the internet and thus for the public’s tool of empowerment. We are seeing that in Egypt today as the government ordered telcos to shut down the internet as a whole in the country. We have seen that in the past when Libya shut down .ly domains it did not like. Our internet is too fragile.

I took some solace from Clay Shirky reminded me today that by the time governments shut down the internet or its services, it has so far been too late: the protestors are organized. I tweeted that and someone responded that the lesson for tyrants is: take care of the internet first, the protestors second.

The chicken-egg debate about the credit the tools of the internet and publicness deserve in Iran and Tunisia and now Egypt is rather pointless, even offensive. These tools were stolen from the public by a government trying to forbid them because they are a means of shifting power. They do not belong to government. They belong to the public, who are using them to claim their rights as the public.

I am in Davos where, in 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote his Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. It becomes only more relevant:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

At a session here at Davos on governance in a new-media world (their words) we discussed the inevitability of greater transparency through these new tools and the need for principles to govern those who would govern it. (I’ll write more about that later.) This is why I am working on my own suggestions for such a set. (Here is the most recent version of a constantly changing list; I no longer call it a Bill of Rights but instead a set of principles and, again, I ask for your help in framing the discussion).

The first and most fundamental principle is that we have a right to connect. Egypt violated that principle — that human right — today.

We, the people of the internet, the citizens of this eighth continent (as the CTO of the U.S. VA calls our newly discovered world) must stand in support of the disconnected of Egypt. I don’t have the eloquence, passion, and credentials of Barlow, so I will not pretend to be able to respond to the call made by @jwildeboer proposed on Twitter just now: “Will Netizens at #WEF publish support statement for #Egypt? Or are they too busy talking to Tycoons? cc @JeffJarvis”

Yes, such a statement of support should come from each of us, particularly those of us here in Davos. This is mine. Yours?