(Updated: May 27, 2011. Gil Scott Heron passed away today from an illness he picked up while traveling Europe. He was 62.)
When Gil Scott-Heron wrote his oft quoted composition, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (first appearing in public in 1970), I don’t think anyone really understood the political ramifications that would result from it. An American poet, author and songwriter, Scott-Heron is generally credited by modern hip hop artists as a major influence. The song itself is considered one of the top political songs of all time.
At the time Scott-Heron wrote the song, television had begun to exert an influence in politics. Some suggest that John Kennedy may have defeated Richard Nixon in the televised debates because he was far more telegenic than Nixon. And, of course, the war in Vietnam was being broadcast almost in real time. The televised war gave Americans a real taste of what their government was doing in foreign nations and the true cost of that effort. Technology, for better or worse, was changing the face of politics.
It is not unlike what is going on in Egypt today. Same idea, different technology.
In many ways, the Internet has fundamentally changed everything. Who needs a travel agency anymore? Print media may soon be extinct. The music industry was finally dismantled. Copyright laws will need to be revisited. My branch of the campus Post Office closed last month after several decades of operation because the Internet is cutting into their profit margin. Privacy is all but dead.
There are good things about the Internet, to be sure. Shopping got easier. Research definitely got easier. I mean, my generation actually had to go look up stuff in a big building full of dusty books. We had to remember things as well. But now, if I hit a deer with my car in the mid-afternoon, I can Google on my Droid how to dress the carcass, find a recipe for venison stew, and have the insurance agency fixing my car, all in time to catch the evening news.
Social networking is an interesting by-product of the age of the Internet. I confess I just rented The Social Network from a Redbox the other night. Aside from the takeaway that Zuckerberg and his Ivy League pals are douchebags, it struck me how ubiquitous the whole phenomenon is. And how quickly it happened. It’s like the world became a hive mind overnight.
Another confession: I try to stay out of Facebook. I get tired of people I haven’t had contact with in years wasting my time with frivolous pursuits. I honestly do not even want to know what Farmville is. And Monotreme, one of the other authors on this blog, just hooked me in to Twitter. I have issues with living in a world of 140 characters or fewer, but it is interesting to drop in on real-time conversations about what is going on in the world with people I find compelling. Plus we get blog traffic from it.
On to what’s happening in the Middle East. First, they’ve had thirty years of what is essentially martial law. Mubarak never relaxed the “state of emergency,” so while Egypt’s leadership has been the least dictatorial of any country in the region, it remains a teensy bit totalitarian. Combine that with a lagging world economy and a new way to communicate with virtually everyone, and you have an army ready to mobilize in an instant.
And I would argue that a certain Western charismatic leader with an oratorical gift might have had a little to do with it. Recall the speech that President Obama gave in Cairo last year. I suspect he inspires people outside of the United States as much as those in his domestic constituency.
Iran was first to try peaceful revolt, but without broad-scale success. Then Tunisia managed to pull off their coup without much bloodshed. Now Egypt. Who will be next? All because citizen communication has been made so much easier. Social networking is participative democracy in action. And that’s one genie that can never be returned to the bottle.
Wikileaks is another by-product of the new information age. Governments will only be able to keep secrets with ever increasing difficulty. They will no longer be able to create illusions under false pretense. Transparency is the new fashion trend.
What does this mean for Egypt and the Middle East? Well there are already signs of other dominoes ready to fall. Yemen and Jordan are already taking pre-emptive measures. The military has taken control of Egypt and put the Constitution on notice for a re-write. The danger here is a military dictatorship evolving in the power vacuum vacated by Mubarak. The other danger is anti-American/Israeli factions seizing control.
But if we’re right in that democracy is the best means of governance, we just may see the social revolution bear some really sweet fruit. I think we should do everything possible to cultivate that and not stand in the way of letting it happen. The rest of the dominoes may fall in right behind it. Egypt and Iran’s first response was to shut down communications but they didn’t realize how big the network had become. They drove television reporters out of the revolt, sometimes imprisoning them. But they could not stop the signal. They could not hold back the people. The revolution may not be televised, but it looks like it will be Tweeted. ¡Viva el Twitter!
Editor’s note: This article was written on February 11 and 12. Since that time, protests have erupted in Iran, where the military is far less sympathetic with the public than Egypt. Also the Palestinian parliament has resigned. This could be a real wildfire.
- Egypt’s groundbreaking ‘digital revolution’ (cnn.com)
- Egyptian President Steps Down Amidst Groundbreaking Digital Revolution (mashable.com)
- How Facebook, Twitter and Google helped bring down Mubarak (pandia.com)
- Hosni Mubarak is gone, but can Egypt’s digital revolution unite the country? (guardian.co.uk)
- The Internet as a Liberator (dave-lucas.blogspot.com)
- The Revolution Will Be Streamed: Watch Live Feed Of Egyptian Upheaval (mediaite.com)
- A Revolution Has Not Been Televised: Viewers Are Misled When They Are Told Social Media Has Changed the Nature of Activism (bigthink.com)
- Revolution 2.0 for Dummies. (broadstuff.com)