Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gutenberg, Zuckerberg and Egypt

We all remember from our high school history classes (hopefully) how important the invention of the printing press was for the development of modern society – including democracy. Relatively widespread access to printed information made it easier for people to organize politically. They could print books about new political ideas, leaflets about immediate actions or current events, and keep the records needed to maintain a long lasting political organization. The enormous impact of the invention of the printing press is well known. We are almost certainly witnessing a socio-technological change of similar proportions with the emergence of social media as a political resource. Zuckerberg may be the new Guttenberg.

Central to much of the literature on democratization and revolutions is the idea that reaching a certain level of development makes new democracies more stable (see previous post on this blog of Jan 29th for a far from exhaustive sampling). Implicit in these arguments is the belief that economic development makes it easier for likeminded individuals to organize to the point where they become politically effective for a long term. The idea is that people find it easier to organize when they have more economic resources. They have easier access to information and the skills and tools required to communicate with likeminded people and coordinate political action with them.

Access to information is central to political organization. It is impossible to formulate any kind of effective political response to a situation if you do not know what your options are or what the preferences of the other major political players are. In the old days, political scientists and sociologists used to count things like the number of radios, TVs, and newspaper subscriptions per 1000 households. These things cost money and for a long time, access to these things was largely restricted to the wealthiest countries or the elites within developing countries.

Setting up a lasting political movement requires a fair amount of skill. Higher literacy rates help potential political activists circulate information among them. In the old days the thinking was someone with a printing press or mimeograph machine or something would print off thousands of leaflets and distribute them around. These could be simply for propaganda purposes or let people know to show up at this or that square in a few days for a big demonstration or organizing meeting for a new political party. Without these kinds of resources, individual people who want to change their political environment may not be able to coordinate their actions. They may not know how many think like they do or how many are willing to risk a crackdown by the police to challenge the regime.

Egypt may change the thinking on all of this radically. It's fairly well known that Egyptians (and people in lots of other non-democracies) have been using Youtube to circumvent state media censorship for some time. Also, there is a lot of talk in the news that the Egyptian uprising was originally set in motion by a marketing exec for Google-Egypt and group of computer savvy young people who intentionally used social media like Facebook and Twitter to get as many people out on the streets as possible in very short order. These things, combined with relatively inexpensive computer (and smart phone) technology, have revolutionized the thinking about what it takes to overcome the difficulties in coordinating political activities. Now, a really big demonstration can be organized in hours. Emerging political parties can use social media to get the word out to their members and get information back from them about their desires and priorities. I even heard a pundit on CNN talk about how he had heard that the CIA was ordering all their station chiefs located in non-democracies to look into the local availability of social media. The clear implication of the conversation was that the CIA was looking into encouraging the spread of such technology in non-democracies where the US government would like to see more democratization (like Iran, Syria or China).

I personally know of several social scientists who are already studying the political importance of social media. One of them had decided to focus his research on the importance of social media for political revolutions even before things broke in Tunisia and Egypt. Applying this sort of research to revolutions and democratization is about to explode.


The Law Talking Guy said...

It's interesting that when Mubarak shut off the social media and cell phones, the old-fashioned word-of-mouth still worked. I think it's important to realize that what social media does is create informal informational networks that foster the growth of actual communities. This is important because the rap on social media is that they are not 'real' communities. Further, social media allows for communities of people to coalesce without regard to race, age, or gender. In Islamic societies that are gender-segregated to a high degree, this is a very big deal.

In sum, what social media did in Egypt was not organize the revolution (it was shut off for most of the time) but create some of the civil society necessary to foment a democratic revolution. That's something worth thinking more about. Because if it's true that social media can be an institution of civil society, then it is cheap and more easily developed in undemocratic societies than ever.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Social media also magnifies the voices of the marginalized and the voiceless. It is democratizing in this respect, although the 'digital divide' remains an issue. Of course, books in their day were not the possessions of the poor either, nor was literacy, but they encouraged the spread of ideas to coffeehouses, pubs, and other social places where the illiterate could engage. Social media gives a voice to women and the unemployed young men who are normally unable to make their voices heard in society, particularly Islamic societies. Social media has the capacity to be profoundly "leveling" in the old sense of promoting social equality.

Raised By Republicans said...

Well, the invention of movable type presses made the literacy rate rise dramatically. Before the printing press, books were so precious they could be held for ransom by marauding pirates. Of course, after the printing press the really poor still couldn't afford books and many could not read even if they could get a book. But the number of people who could read and own books shot way way up.

As LTG points out, there is a huge digital divide now just as there was a huge literacy divide in the 16th-18th century. But this isn't about everyone having complete access to information. It's about access spreading and becoming cheaper to the point where setting up and maintaining organizations get significantly easier.

I hadn't thought about the segregation issue. It is interesting to think of how social media will interact with the emerging women's rights movement too. If cultural norms backed up by laws and gangs of thuggish religious police prevent women from physically meeting with each other to build organizations, these kinds of social media may provide a partial substitute for that.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Not just the official Islamic segregation issues, but also the informal problem of poor women with kids not able to leave the house much.

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