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Democracy, Capitalism and Technology

Among the many amazing images of social unrest that have come out of Egypt over the course of the past week includes a nighttime photo that depicted a group of young protestors huddled in the middle of Tahrir Square huddled around a small fire kindled from scrounged scraps of wood. The photo was used widely by dozens of media outlets including The Washington Post, The Daily Kos and The Huffington Post. What was most remarkable about the photos was how it was displayed in the New York Times. Throughout the past week, the Times has offered an incredible slideshow of photos taken by photojournalists from the AP, Reuters and the European Pressphoto Agency. The Times prominently displayed the campfire photo as a remarkable depiction of disparate protestors making common cause over the shared intimacy of a simple campfire. It is a nearly universal image. We have all circled around campfires, brought together by the warmth and light of the fire, and in doing so have shared intimacies and forged social bonds.

What was most interesting about the photo, however, was the way in which the Times chose to display it. The campfire photo was immediately followed in the slideshow by another nighttime photograph of Tahrir Square. Another shot of protestors huddled in a circle together. Another photo of protestors sharing a brief intimacy amid enormous chaos. But in this photo the light they shared wasn’t the light of a small kindling fire, but rather light emitted from a pile of blinking cell phones recharging on a communal extension cord.

The uncanny familiarity between the two photos illustrates a central theme of so much of the coverage of the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt over the past month: the central role of technology and its role in producing democratic transformations via free markets. According to the photo, the cell phone has replaced the campfire as the hearth around which we build our most intimate social relations. And the cell phone photograph, juxtaposed as it is against the campfire photo, suggests that while the source of social relations and intimacy (from stone age campfires to 21st century technology) may have changed the way in which we express those social relations has not. Cell phones are the new campfires and we owe our social bonds and most intimate relations to them.

This photo was the compelling visual representation of an ongoing trope among many commentators, journalists, and political activists. According to the Times and the Guardian, and debated on Democracy Now and in endless blog entries and twitter feeds, the unrest we have been witnessing in Tunis and Egypt is the “facebook” or “twitter” revolution.

But this obsession with the technological essence of the unrest in the Arab world—is it, or isn’t it the techno-revolution?—has unfortunately been marked by a profoundly uncritical debate over the role of technology in the political and economic convulsions we have been witnessing. Deeper investigations into the role of technology have been ignored in favor of the fetish of the facebook. And this is nothing new. The fetish of facebook and twitter echoes the fascination with the technological innovations understood as inherent and progressive in capitalism. And because of it we have cell phone revolutions.

While some commentators have been quick to dismiss the absurd idea of a facebook revolution, these interventions they have largely ignored the central way in which technology is understood: technology as an autonomous, independent agent of change—THE causative agent driving human progress. The ubiquitous objects of technology have finally become so much a part of everyday life that they have become invisible to critical scrutiny.

As a result many critics have responded to the banality of claims of technological progress at the heart of the Egyptian unrest with equally banal claims about the limits of technology. We are subjected to discussions of the political implications of technology that often slide into “he said, she said” absurdities.

While much of the punditry on the role of technology in the events unfolding in Egypt reveal the depth of truly shallow views of technology, the political and economic context of the uprising in Cairo offers, if anything, an antidote to claims of technological determinism and an opportunity to develop a critical view of technology that examines the political economy of technology.

First, (and perhaps the most obvious and most noted) Facebook and Twitter aren’t “technology.” They are commercial firms with services developed and deployed as commodities that circulate solely as a means to capture surplus value and thus provide a return on investment for shareholders.

Celebrations of technology, or out-of-hand rejection of technology, that rely on the simplified view of technology (facebook = technology) not only ignore the political economy of technological development in capitalist society, not only valorize and reinforce the dangerous notion of an independent techno-authority, but by doing so foreclose the close scrutiny of technology and democracy in capitalist society. We ignore the cultural, political and economic complexity of technological artifacts and let off the hook the people, institution and worldviews that rely on these tools to reproduce inequality and injustice.

While many critics of the idea of a “facebook revolution” have pointed out that the protests in Egypt have developed largely without the aid of facebook or twitter, this phenomenon has not been fully explored and does not go far enough.

A consideration of the role of technology in the unrest engulfing the Arab world should consider how particular political structures and economic arrangements have produced and relied on particular tools of oppression expressed through control of everyday objects of technology. Starting at this critical vantage point, instead of around the virtual campfire, takes us somewhere else entirely.

The events in the Arab world over the past two weeks have starkly revealed the authoritarian structures and reactionary politics embedded in nearly all of the objects and artifacts upon which we have come to rely on and refer to so innocuously as “technology.”

First, the same US corporations heralded as the source of technology-driven revolution (facebook and twitter) are hardly the most important US technology corporations implicated in the unrest in Egypt. Narus, a California-based company founded in 1997 and owned by Boeing, developed and now sells what they call “real-time traffic intelligence” equipment to countries and corporate clients. Among their many clients are Egypt Telecom and the U.S. super-spies at the National Security Agency. Narus provides equipment that provides the capacity for on-the-spot surveillance of internet communications. NSA conducts these procedures on a daily basis in ongoing violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act but at the continued pleasure of the White House. Mubarak, his hand ever on the handle of authoritarian tools delivered to him by his corporate friends, has used this capacity with a vengeance over the past week, targeting activists and interrupting communications. This hasn’t been the “facebook revolution.” If anything it is the “Narus Revolution” brought to you by the friendly international team of trainers in the National Security Agency.

Second, Egypt not only conducts surveillance, but also literally controls access to digital information, demonstrated by their rapid digital response to social unrest. They shut down all internet traffic in Egypt because all internet traffic runs through one of four commercial ISPs. They were ordered to shut down and they complied. The internet is not the virtual commons, it operates as a virtual marketplace in the same way that the mall does—it is private property. It’s infrastructure owned and controlled by corporations and governments on stand-by to protect their interests. As long as all you do is shop, you’re fine.

Mubarak ordered UK-based Vodaphone to shut down mobile phone texting. This was easy, of course, because in order for Vodaphone to acquire a license to operate in Egypt it had to agree to conditions and government control and oversight. They did so happily. Such is the logic of capitalism. So much for “technology” as an autonomous, independent agent of social change and democracy.

Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut have long been working on legislation to make Mubarak’s malevolent tactics our federal law. Their bill would give to the President the authority to “declare a cybersecurity emergency,” and “order the disconnection” of certain networks or Web sites. This authority would “not be subject to judicial review.”

So much for “technology” serving the interests of democratic movements. In the end, the particular objects and artifacts of everyday “technology” are the tools of corporations and authoritarian governments. And by now it should be clear that democracy and capitalism do not cohere and the revolution cannot be carried out via “technology.” Rather the struggle must become a struggle over the social, political and economic conditions that have made the everyday objects of technology—our digital campfires—nothing more than the tools of authoritarian despotism and capital accumulation.

And over the past few days, this is precisely what has happened in Egypt. The trite talk of techno-progressivism and techno-democracy has been silenced by scenes of bloody confrontation between Mubarak’s reactionary goons and protestors no longer huddling around cell phone campfires. They are fighting in the streets as anti-Mubarak protestors are breaking up bricks (“the broken-brick revolution!?”) to heave at knife-wielding pro-Mubarak attackers as they fight against a regime long propped up by its technological authoritarianism.

David Correia is a Visiting Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at dcorreia(at)unm(dot)edu

 

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