Egypt Forum IV: Communication Power
After nearly two weeks of turmoil, it looks like Tahrir Square is starting to empty out. The Egyptian Revolution – if we can call it that – seems to be entering its inevitable second phase, the power political phase, where elites sit down at a negotiating table and wield the old images of the angry masses as bargaining chips during administrative transition. This is not “revolution” in the fullest sense of the word – in the sense that evokes images of the Red Army or the guillotine; in the sense of capital being restructured or new ideas being born. What we’re seeing in Egypt, instead, is “regime change”: the substitution of one set of elites for another, and the reorganization of the Egyptian state. Our modest hope should be for a government that’s a bit more democratic and a bit more fair. If we permit ourselves to dream, it should be for an Egyptian state that achieves what is possible for truly and uniquely Islamic democracy, a state that is organized around a serious attempt by a free society to work out its own self-understandings writ large. This crazy hope, it seems to me, has not yet died. It’s not really revolution, but it is as exciting as hell.
We’ve spent this forum trying to answer the question, “What, if anything, does the Internet have to do with this?” To answer this question, we’ve got to keep our minds open to the complex ways that democratization actually goes forward in the real world. If democratization were really a simple binary, where Egyptian democrats are either (a) sacking their government or (b) doing nothing at all, then Malcolm Gladwell’s famous thesis that social media doesn’t create “strong ties” would be all we needed to know. Because he’s right: Twitter and Facebook won’t get your friends to die in any cause. Facebook makes friendship easy; while dying for causes, needless to say, is hard.
But democratization is much more complex than just getting your friends to do big things. To have a functioning democracy, you need a functioning civic community. And community is all about the small things. It’s about the incremental increases in trust when you help someone out; the sharing of new ideas with new people; the building of a collective identity. Community helps a democratic society work out its shared values, and through this process, to ratify rules (and rulers) as legitimate. That process of communal affirmation is what democracy is all about, and while guns are an important part of all this (as coercion power), the process is ultimately discursive and imagined — which is to say, it happens through the sharing of information.
It’s not crazy to claim, then, that democracies and information networks are in some fundamental way aligned in their structure and logic: free individuals (nodes in a network) share information freely with other people (distribute information across the network) in public places like town centers, libraries, the post office, the National Mall and the printing press (the public information platforms that make democracy work). In the process, they give substance to the idea of a sovereign — they create “a people” with a “will.”
Facebook and Twitter are thus nothing more (and nothing less) than new tools for this older, democratic function: the distribution of information across networks; the communicative action between citizens; the creating of shared meaning. This is the hope that the Internet can bring to a repressed society like Egypt: not the killing of kings in Tahrir, but the building of a civic community once the square’s been emptied out.
I’ll end this with a quote from Manuel Castells’s very cool book, Communication Power. (Replace “communication” with “the tools that facilitate communication like flyers and Facebook.”)
“My working hypothesis is that the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape the human mind….If the fundamental battle about the definition of the norms of society, and the application of these norms in everyday life, revolves around the shaping of the human mind, communication is central to this battle. Because it is through communication that the human mind interacts with its social and natural environment…The communication process decisively mediates the way in which power relationships are constructed and challenged in every domain of social practice, including political practice.”