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Join forces



A text written by Ilias Marmaras on the occasion of the exhibition AFTER THE RAGE by BEHOLDS

It’s been almost a year since December 2010, when the whole world -even the “Great Powers”, astonished, came face to face with what later was given the name of the “Arab Uprisings”. Perhaps, it would be better to use the singular here: “Arab Uprising”. This is for two reasons. The first reason, which is now substantiated, suggests that despite the peculiarities of the developments in individual countries and cities of the Arab Spring, what is happening is a general political unrest, in effect a series of revolutions in progress, or under reconstruction, throughout almost the entire Arab world, a world which the West, through the distorting lens of Orientalism, refers to as the “Islamic Arc”.

The second reason for using the singular, rather than the plural, is, in effect, an old challenge, an attempt of appropriation through unification, through the naming of events, a by-product of the way of looking at what is happening by those who call them: “the facebook revolution” or “the twitter revolution”. Certainly, from one point of view, the use of virtual networks appears to be the form of an internet super-Darwinism, where the forces of change, which usually take years to develop, in specific cases, seem to be compressed in a matter of a few weeks.

If one were to google “facebook revolution”, one would get 410 million pages of results; “twitter revolution” returns 350 million pages. It goes without saying, that most of these results refer to the Arab uprisings. By way of contrast, googling “Russian revolution” returns 28 million pages, a modest number in comparison. Therefore, according to google, a networked revolution is taking place in Arab countries. “Network” here refers to the specific corporate networks of facebook and twitter and not to just any virtual group on the web. In reply to this, Professor Ulisses Mejias1 has suggested that perhaps the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 should be named not after the medium used – for the first time in history – by photographer Hugo Brehme, to record the atrocities of war, but after the company manufacturing the medium. Something along the lines of “Viva Leica, cabrones!”, “The Leica Revolution is here”.

Is this an accurate description of events? To what extent do the political and social futures and the various forms of rupture with despotism depend on social network and, more generally, on virtual reality? What is the state of interplay between the “real” and the “virtual” world and who stands to gain from this? Historian Robert Darnton2 observes: “the miracles of technology today have created a distorting image of the past, a sense that communication has no history, that nothing important existed in this area before the days of television and the World Wide Web.” However, a study of the Red Brigades, the Italian movement of the 70s, shows that 70% of members, already had a good friend belonging to the organization. The same applies to joiners of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. Even revolts that appear spontaneous, such as the protests in former East Germany, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at their core, the result of strong network ties. The underground movement was made up of several hundred teams, each of which had no more than 12 members. Different teams had only limited contact with each other. At that time, only 13% of East Germans had a telephone. They knew simply of a weekly meeting at St Nicholas’s church downtown, to express their rage against the state. And the main determinant of participation at the protest was the number of friends who were going to be there. The more friends who were going to go and protest against the regime a person had, the more likely was that person to go and protest herself.

In Tunisia the Jasmine revolution was not the result of a long, painful process of conspiracy, but came because people pressed the Ben Ali regime in order to gain small freedoms here and there. “They were pushing the wall”, as they now say, and suddenly they realized that the wall had fallen. Small claims for small freedoms in multiple areas and social fields: that is how it happened. We have to note that in the Maghreb countries there still exist coffee houses and areas of common prayer, and therefore meeting places. This is in contrast to the Western World where people are often stuck behind lonely screens of different sorts, either in internet cafes, which are quickly vanishing, or at home practicing “online socializing”. I think it is easy to understand that the term “facebook revolution”, did not aim to advertise that specific network to those who revolted against the dictatorships, but, instead, its purpose to sell to people in the Western World the “concept” of how great these social networking sites really are. Something along the lines of: come to facebook and you too can be part of the revolution. The image of the man in Yemen carrying a board with “facebook” written on it, or the graffiti messages sprayed on walls around Tunis, reading “thank you facebook” are excellent examples of “successful product placement”.

A year after the Arab uprisings the commercial networks landscape has evolved. Facebook declares, in an increasingly direct manner, to its users, like a latter-day Louis XIV “le internet, c’est moi”. At this point we have to see Technological Media for what they really are. They are Media and tools, but they do not cause movements. There have always been revolts and revolutions in history, irrespective of the means available to the main protagonists: presses for printing wall papers and pamphlets in the 18th century, the internet today. People always know the technology that is available to them and use it in order to move and to organize themselves, whenever they have an important reason for doing that. Be that as it may, the role of networks in communication is an important parameter today, made easier by the mostly web-like organization of new technological media. Wherever there are revolts, today, in regimes that call themselves “democratic” one can observe the same forms of organization in the field of demands. Using tools such as facebook, a movement can do whatever it has to do across a whole country, or even across a number of countries, while in the past it had to start from a city, to move onto another city etc. This necessitated the existence of a guiding party with branches everywhere. Therefore, new technologies facilitate this horizontal form of organization, but they do not create movements. There has never been a “facebook revolution” in the Arab Spring. But, also, there has never been a guiding party.

This is the exact focus of debate on the use of private, commercial social network in the organization of movements. Although it is true, at least up to now, that such networks have aided such organizations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere (including Greece) the role in reality is much more complicated. Their users have, to begin with, to analyze whether their use ends up de-politicizing our understanding of events and of conflicts, turning society and its revolts into articles of merchandise. Networks, especially massive, commercial networks, are power structures, designed on the basis of a participation architecture (we are the participation, but not the architects). Such structures aim at preserving control and its distribution. Facebook and twitter are not merely the interfaces used for action. Networks today, same as cinema and TV in the past, act as the new frameworks for the production of linguistic structures. More simply put, networks are modern factories producing communication and (with a little bit of hope and optimism) meaning. And in the same way that technical infrastructure in factories determines the forms of production, linguistic structures determine, or hinder, the production of meaning.

Furthermore, the “willingness” shown by these networks to “host” and “lead the way” in the revolts, makes one wonder whether their aim is to absolve capitalist oligarchies of their contribution in suppressing democratic rights. At the end of the day, in Egypt, and elsewhere, the weapons used for wars and for suppressing revolts by corrupt states of all forms, come from Western democratic countries. Manuel Castells3 says: “as long as we do not know the power forms that are involved in the connected society, we cannot neutralize the unjust exercise of power. And if we do not know who exactly the holders of this power are, and where to locate them, we cannot deal with their clandestine, but ultimately determining supremacy.

Hybrid cities, where the realms of the virtual and the real merge, are spreading with increasing speed everywhere. But the same happens with the demands against tyrannical “third world regimes” and economic oligarchies alike. In fact, the convergence between these two last categories, as anyone can see in Greece and elsewhere in Europe today, may be moving faster than the march of the virtual towards the real. One could be tempted here to try to uncover cause and effects relations here. However conditions are more urgent, and often more demanding, than the needs of theoretical analysis. An Egyptian blogger wrote that internet freedom and freedom on Tahir square were events of a different class. He said he felt the same about the solidarity and the feeling of belonging to a community. There is a feeling of responsibility that goes with being physically present somewhere, which one cannot necessarily find in the case of an online presence. We can all click and become members of a page in facebook (even though that, in itself, is not without dangers in some countries), however, being there, in body, at a demonstration, is a completely different thing. Negri and Hardt4 claim that the use of social networking tools are symptoms and not causes of the organizational structures of revolts. They appear to be the means of expression of an intelligent, modern crowd, who feel at ease with contemporary communications tools, with autonomy. Perhaps, one day this crowd will use these tools , in the arena, in the gamespace itself.

Translation for Lo and Behold Iris Plaitakis

1.Ulises Mejias, professor of New Media, OSWEGO (State University of New York

2. Robert Darnton, Historian, head of the Harvard University Library, founder of the ""Gutenberg-e program

3. Manuel Castells, sociology professor, city planner and member of the board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)

4. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, post-Marxist political philosophers, best know for their Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth trilogy

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Page last modified on February 27, 2012, at 04:41 AM