treading on digital divides

On: March 24, 2011
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About Margarita Osipian


   

The revolution will not be tweeted

The networked structure of digital communication channels was illuminated when internet and digital communication networks were shut down in Egypt. It was also at this moment that the nation-state aspect of networked communication (the physicality of the square and of analog forms of communication) and its relationship to the digital networks was complicated.

The current situation in Egypt, where thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo to demand an end to the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak, is a valuable example of the tensions between control and decentralization being made visible. With the threat of protests looming, on Thursday January 27th the Egyptian government cut the nation off from all forms of online communication, with no online communication passing in or out of the country. The government began by blocking Twitter and Facebook access within its borders earlier in the week. These two social platforms are often cited as some of the main catalysts for the mass organization of the protests. Shortly after Thursday midnight local time, the country
disappeared from the Internet, making Egyptian websites and services unreachable. In true capitalist spirit however, the website for the stock exchange remained online (it was, however, also inaccessible at a later point). Cellular phone networks were also shut down, with Vodaphone Egypt confirming that all mobile providers had been obliged by the Egyptian government to shut down service. In order to shut down online communication, the Egyptian authorities would have had to request for the handful of large Internet service providers in the country to corrupt routers, the nodes in the internet which direct data traffic.

When watching two separate videos on Al Jazeera about the role of Twitter, social networking platforms, and the internet in general in the Egyptian protests, what stood out to me is the very strong demarcation in opinions about what role digital communication is playing.

In the clip above, the focus in the introduction is mainly praising the role of Twitter and other social networking platforms in spreading information about protests, holding governments up for transparency, and the continuation of tweeting (done on other people’s behalf’s) after the ‘internet shutdown’.

However, in the clip below, we get a very different opinion, where the commentator is discussing how the internet is now obsolete, that it is not very important for the people since the protests will still continue since they have reached a critical mass, and that information is now spreading word of mouth.

In the interview that follows the first clip, Clay Shirky points to the example that football matches in Tunisia were being shut down during their revolution. It is precisely the coordinated aspect of the technologies and tools, the coordination of the nodes of the network, that is vital, rather then the specificity of the technology that facilitates this coordination. Keeping this in mind highlights the interconnected qualities of different forms of communication and the potential flexibility in the movement from the use of one form of communication technology to another. In the Egyptian example, once the digital communication networks were shut down, there was a move to older forms of communication such as pamphlets, ham radios, fax machines, and landline telephones. Perhaps the value, then, is in multiplicity and flexibility, rather then a focus on singular platforms for ‘social revolutions’.

Jodi Dean, in “Why the net is not a public sphere” critiques the often hidden ‘cognitive capitalism’ and the appearance of a public sphere in what is the material basis of the global economy. So before lauding single entities that are tied into the cognitive capitalism of the global economy for revolutions, it is valuable to be critical of lifting any one form of communication above all others.

* Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere” Constellations: an International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory 10, no. 1 (2003): 95-
112.

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