Of Cyber-Skeptics and Cyber-Utopians: Debunking Myths and Discussing the Future

About ten days before the events of January 25, the media was abuzz with writers and influential thinkers wondering if the Tunisian revolution was a Twitter revolution or not. The camps, as usual, were divided, with incessant criticism from cyber-skeptics and their tirades against cyber-utopians. Sifting through the widespread commentary about digital activism in the wake of the extraordinary events of the revolution at Egypt, the polarity of opinions is jarring. While most commentary from supporters of digital activism has been balanced and acknowledges the presence of inevitable drawbacks, cyber-skeptics seem to wax eloquent about the utopianism of the opposing school of thought. A review of the commentary points to the contrary and provides a sneak peek into what the future course of conversation in these circles could be.

Technology-aided revolution (Source: Beefoto/Flickr)

The School of Skepticism

On a scale of cyber-skepticism to cyber-utopianism, Malcolm Gladwell continues to move at a rate that will soon push him off the cyber-skeptic end. It has been proven beyond doubt that digital activism is not without risks. If anything, this has become a controversial subject with the question of the unavailability of anonymity impeding activists online. How the Egypt revolution happened would not be of any interest to Gladwell, who says he’d rather choose to focus on the why (in The New Yorker). It would, perhaps, be interesting to observe the ‘why’ as well. Did social media play a role, however small, in creating these digital activists, later helping them to organize better? Were there conversations in the cyberspace that indicated an uprising was in the offing?

Evgeny Morozov is the emerging leader of the tech naysayer school and his latest book ‘The Net Delusion’ attempts to debunk any remaining myths of social media revolutions (not that there were any trustworthy scholars claiming its existence in the first place!) Here is a review of ‘The Net Delusion’ and a detailed take of Mary Joyce of the Meta-Activism Project on Morozov’s ideas.

Cyber-Supporters and the Public Sphere

Extreme skepticism apart, there are some rational voices that have commented about the real role that technology and digital activism have played in furthering events at Egypt. The Berkman Center’s Jillian York acknowledges that Twitter is a complement to major news networks and that the public’s awareness of who to follow on Twitter has also been significant in this revolution. A quote from her blog (“Egyptians know their country better than CNN, MSNBC, or even Al Jazeera possibly could.” ) probably sums up the essence of this revolution the best – it has been a revolution of and by the people of Egypt, as revolutions have been, across centuries. What makes this more relevant to the world of digital activism is the fact that every Egyptian who wanted to talk, could now possibly be heard from halfway across the world.

Clay Shirky, who has remained hopeful about the role of social media and digital activism making a positive impact, has been engaging in constant word battles with Gladwell. In one of his responses to Gladwell’s rather ironically-titled ‘An Absence of Evidence’, Shirky acknowledges that the tools of social media alter the dynamics of the public sphere. The public sphere has been an issue oft-discussed in the past few weeks, from several angles. One of them has been in the context of social media’s role in the public sphere. Increasing concerns about Facebook continue to be voiced. Jillian York talked about the role (or lack thereof) of Facebook in the Arab public sphere about a year ago and these concerns have resurfaced with stronger voices in the context of Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan. (What Can Facebook Do To Better Support Activists – Movements.org)

Earlier this week, an article in The New York Times discussed how the world of digital activism would deal with the possibility of autocratic governments holding the kill switch for the internet. More data is needed to understand how the internet was effectively shut down in Egypt and could be useful in furthering understanding for activists in the coming years.

Misnomers and Redundant Non-Debates

In the midst of debates about whether or not technology matters to revolutions, Jay Rosen of NYU recently published an interesting post about the redundancy of opinions and discussions that have begun to cloud constructive conversation in this realm (Following it up with a collection of reactions and comments to the Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators argument). Calling the internet and its social media tools a “sexy newsy sidebar to the main event,” he says that factors are not causes. His frustration at the claims of non-existence of extreme cyber-utopianism could be a response to the skeptics’ constant thrashing of arguments that no one seems to be making anymore. Some points are beyond refutation.

Yay or nay? (Source: @ahmed http://img.ly/2TgS)

The Question of Why

In spite of his now-frustrating routine of arguments (“Just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean they matter”), Gladwell does make a valid contribution to the cyber-utopian camp by suggesting a focus on why the revolution occurred. A lot of supposed cyber-utopians (who, in reality, are only just supporters of the idea that digital activism can have a positive effect) have discussed the ‘Why’. Why was there a revolution in Egypt? Why now? There’s also the increasingly discussed question of “What next?”

Devin Coldewey also takes a moderate view of the revolution and the role of technology. Since internet is the contemporary means of communication, it was used to organize. Five years ago, he says, it would have been mobile phones. His views form a more reasonable version of Gladwell’s “it’s not the how but the why that matters” argument. While leaning away from the utopian camp, Coldewey also acknowledges the relevance of internet, although he says “the internet is neither necessary nor sufficient for a revolution. An outraged and unified population is both.”

From Lunch Counters to Leadership Crises

Lunch counters out there do need integrating, as Gladwell pointed out last year, except, we can probably inform as many people of it online as we could have offline. One is not a substitute for the other, but a complement that could prove more effective than either as a standalone tactic. Organizing has become more effective and the power of organizing as a tool to exercise democracy has been proven by the success of the people of Egypt. “In the absence of social media, would these uprisings have been impossible?” Gladwell asks. No, but the presence of social media has made the road to effective means and successful ends of such uprisings easier and more global.

A more critical concern at this juncture would be about Egypt’s future. A regime has been overthrown. Digital activism has proven to be a potent counterpart to traditional, offline organizing. But, with the changing political atmosphere in Egypt come changes in concerns in the media as well. The big question is – who will lead Egypt? While citizen activists, their online and offline supporters and voices from across oceans could create, sustain and see a revolution through to its successful end, the revolution, in large part, has been leaderless. Anne-Marie Slaughter, until recently Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, writes about the changing conception of leadership in the internet generation, stating that leaders are central nodes in multiple networks and rightly points out that mass movements cannot govern.

It is probably time to stop overstating the evils of technology and begin constructive conversation about the road ahead for a leaderless revolution. Even the cyber-skeptic/cyber-utopian trope is unhelpful to the field as it allows thinkers to pigeon-hole one another and discredit each other’s arguments with buzzwords. Cyber-skepticism, moderate support or illusions of cyber-utopians will not decide the future of Egypt. Just like its revolution, it will be decided and carried forward by its people.


10 thoughts on “Of Cyber-Skeptics and Cyber-Utopians: Debunking Myths and Discussing the Future

  1. Jesus, I’m so tired of the masturbatory, self-congratulatory nonsense spewed by “social media experts” surrounding revolutions in the Middle East. Stop trying to turn your voyeurism into something important just because your minds are too feeble to understand the REAL underlying causes for a revolution (economics, human rights, etc). If this was 1991 and all these people had were phone books, they would’ve used them to the same effect as they used Facebook. And are we just ignroing the fact that these revoutions are happening in SPITE of draconian net censorship laws practiced by many of these regimes. The internet is doing exactly two things:

    1) Lowering the bar for assholes in the West to feel like they’re actually doing something by “liking” a revolution on Facebook or futilely retweeting Al Jazeera’s Tweets (seriously, what is this accomplishing? If someone cares about this, they’re obviously following the only credible news source in the region).

    2) Giving these regimes a virtual Marauder’s Map to track down every dissident and throw them in jail (please see: the Harvard Berkman report on the Green Revolution).

    My point is: Genuflecting to Zuck and Co. might be helping you get pageviews and sell magazines, but it’s distracting from the REAL problems in the region, the ones that people have been fighting for long before Facebook.

    • Akash,
      Let me first say that it’s not necessary to be a social media expert (I don’t claim to be one) to provide a review of the commentary. It’s not clear to me if your comment is directed at the supposed utopians or the entire brand of tech supporters.
      It is definitely important to understand the real causes, as both cyber-skeptics and mistaken utopians have pointed out. Since this isn’t 1991 and social media is here to stay, it’s probably time to end the debate about whether or not social media matters and start thinking about how it can help further democratization. Slacktivism is a real danger, but lowering the bar for the west is not a reason for the rest of the world to not try and stay connected during times of crises. We can’t let slacktivism get in the way of activism.

      Why let modern tools distract us from the real problems? The cyberspace is large enough to accommodate enough conversations about the problems and the tools like connection technologies that could help in solving them.

      It’s high time commentators from both camps stopped demonizing their respective targets and started a constructive conversation. Like Rosen said, no one claims Twitter toppled dictators anymore.

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  4. In my opinion Twitter played the role that ‘free’ newspapers did in the past decades. It powered the flow of unbiased information from Egypt to the rest of the world in a way that was never possible before. Media coins hyperbolic terms like ‘Twitter revolution’ not the people directly involved and definitely not Twitter.

    I find these debates about twitter and facebook’s roles in modern revolutions quite silly because people on both sides of the debate would agree that these communication tools definitely didn’t affect the revolutions negatively. Does it give most people a false sense of contribution when they retweet or ‘like’? Absolutely, but so what?

    • That’s an interesting take, Abhishek. I agree, hyperbolic terms have taken the debate totally off track and propelled it into an iterative space of no return! I strongly feel that NOT using the communication tools that are available (and a direct result of inevitable technological advancement) would be foolish. Did Twitter bring down Mubarak? No way. But, it helped give citizens of the world a front row seat to Mubarak’s dethroning and helped those in Egypt organize (the operative word being ‘helped’). That, in my opinion, makes it a worthy tool. Where no one cared about an issue before, they’re at least retweeting or liking these days. It’s time to move past the Twitter revolution debate onto more pressing questions!

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