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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Revolution in 140 Characters: Thinking About Information Technology and Politics

With Egypt and Tunisia in the midst of some fairly radical political change the role of the internet, particularly social media like Twitter and Facebook, in social movements has again become a topic of popular discussion. Sometimes it can seem the options are either na├»ve optimism about “twitter revolutions” or a jaded cynicism that scoffs at the effects of social media. What I hope to convince you of here is that internet technology is not inherently democratic, and to make the argument that the effects the internet has are always the product of a specific context.
The problem at hand in discussions of Facebook, Twitter, or the internet more broadly is technological determinism. As the name might suggest, technological determinism explains society and social change primarily through the lens of technological change. Technology, in other words, acts as the independent variable or agent of change and society is the dependent variable. Frequently this involves claiming certain technologies contain inherent effects due to the nature of the technology itself. Whether or not certain effects are realized, the technology always pushes in a particular direction. Analyses that assume the internet has an inherently democratic nature or that essentially boil down to “no twitter, no revolution” are examples of technological determinism.
There are obvious problems with such a perspective. Technological determinism undervalues the context in which a technology is used and the agency of those using it. Tools and technologies are always repurposed according to individual preferences and cultural norms. In the end technological determinism assumes what needs to be proven—the effects of technology.
One of, if not the most infamous critical assessment of the use of social media in social movements comes from Malcom Gladwell’s 2010 piece for the New Yorker. In it he argues that popular movements for social change rely on strong social ties and a high level of commitment. The reason being, social change, especially radical change, is often dangerous and requires participants be willing to risk personal wellbeing. The internet, Gladwell argues, especially social media like Twitter, doesn't work like this. Rather, he claims that, “social media are built around weak ties”. Facebook, for example, allows us to make broad, weak connections with many people but is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for fueling a social movement. Gladwell also supports those who criticize foreign media for paying too much attention to English language posts on Twitter and ignore the long-standing causes or more substantial legwork needed on the ground to make a revolution happen. In countries where English is not the first language and internet access may not be widespread, how much do we learn from Twitter? In other words, we see Twitter and Facebook as important because they are so ubiquitous in our own lives not because they actually matter.

Whatever happened to the Iranian "Twitter" revolution?

Good polemics are supposed to make you think, so I have to admit to enjoying Gladwell’s article, but it falls into its own sort of determinism. According to Gladwell social media never produces the sorts of strong ties needed for popular movements. Essentially Gladwell argues that social media are inherently shallow forms of social networking. This ignores the ways our virtual and meat-space lives overlap. Gladwell also ignores the fact that in some circumstances social media may well play an important role in either coordinating group actions or in trying to garner international support. Indeed communication technologies sometimes do play vital roles in popular uprisings.
Another popular critic of the role of the internet is Evgyeny Morozov. One-time enthusiast for the transformative role of the internet and Twitter, he has since tempered his stance. In contrast to Gladwell, Morozov focuses on the fact that internet technologies are not inherently liberating. Far from ushering in an “open society”, the internet can and has been used by authoritarian states and reactionary movements. China, for example, is an undemocratic state that has figured out how to handle the internet. As far as popular movements go, we can turn to recent events in Pakistan. After the assassination of the governor of Punjab motivated, it seems, for his stance of blasphemy laws, many took to the streets in support of the assassin even forming a Facebook group to support the cause. There is nothing inherently progressive about the internet and its effects and uses will always depend on context.
So where do these critiques leave us? To begin, it means we need to beware of a simple progressive view of history and look more critically at the actual roles and effects of new technologies. The internet may not be as newfangled as we suppose it to be—the telegraph, after all, created some of the same effects often attributed as unique to the internet. Indeed, in China the older technology of the telegraph was part of a popular, revolutionary uprising whereas the internet has so far has not been. Yongming Zhou (one of my professors at UW-Madison) attributes this to the “receiving context” of a technology. In contrast to the relative strength of the PRC today, the Qing dynasty was weak, lost legitimacy after the Sino-Japanese war, and faced a growing nationalist sentiment. In the midst of this apparent weakness a shift in regime, constitutionalism, was seen as the best way to save China and restore its greatness. Telegraphic circulars did not cause the uprising rather, “it was the need to publicize and broaden the reach of the idea of constitutionalism that made sending circular telegrams an imperative political practice” (233). A similar situation may well be true of what we’re now seeing in Egypt and Tunisia.

Serious politics or playing FarmVille?
Likewise we need to be more sensitive to the interaction between local and global contexts. NPR ran an amusing bit on how the names we know revolutions by may be the invention of those outside the country. Tunisia’s “Jasmine” revolution is, supposedly, a French media invention—not a term coming from the people of Tunisia. Despite being removed from the on-the-ground perspectives these names may eventually gain popularity in country as a way to curry international attention and bring people together. The point is that although connected to the global discourse, the local understandings of the revolution may be quite different from our own. Our images of a revolution may reflect both our own biases and the active cultivation of an image for international consumption by those involved.

What do Tunisians or Egyptians or members of any other social movement make of their uprising? How has internet technology been involved in their experience or understanding of political events? Have there been long-term effects from the use of social media in other places like Iran? I’ve been following the recent events pretty closely, but these are questions that still remain inadequately answered for me. What we need is to step back from our fetishization of media technology a more nuanced, context sensitive discussion that addresses these questions.

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