There’s been a lot of talk about the role Twitter, text messaging, and other communication mediums are playing in the unfolding drama in Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell basically says the role isn’t great: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”
But I am not convinced this is true: by lowering the friction of communication, thus making it real-time and instantaneous, Twitter and other technological tools are almost certainly changing what is said. Quantity has a quality all its own, and how we speak has a habit of changing what we say.
Gladwell’s post (and others) remind me of the arguments in English literature the field around the development of the novel as a genre (see, for example this post on Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History). Basically, a lot of people want to argue about the development of the novel without taking into account the printing press.
To me this is silly because mass cheap printing was a precondition to the novel as we know it. Without that, we would have fictional prose narratives of some length, but we probably wouldn’t have them alluding to one another, we wouldn’t have large portions of the population reading them, and we wouldn’t have (relatively) large portions of the population with enough disposable income to avoid them. If you look at surviving works that we would now classify as fiction that were written prior to ~1600, almost all of them are religious in nature because only the church had the resources to fund writing, maintain large collections of writing, and bother writing anything down.
After ~1600 (or ~1500, if you prefer, but that’s about it), you have a lot of things written that would previously not have been considered “worth” writing down because writing and copying manuscripts was so expensive and time consuming. Technology did change what was said. How something was said changed what was said. Technology is doing the same thing now. I don’t know how the current drama will play out; if you looked at the printing press around the time it was first created, it was mostly used to print religious stuff (hence the “Gutenberg Bible”). Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change describes some of this. By the nineteenth century, however, writers are grappling with the idea of a world without God, per J. Hillis Miller’s Form of Victorian Fiction, or a world where “God is dead,” to use Nietzsche’s famous and misunderstood proclamation: he wasn’t saying that people would stop believing in God or that would religion would stop being a force society, but rather that religious studies were a dead end and people would cease to attribute everything in their life to God or God’s will.
In 1500, the material published via printing press looked basically continuous with what came about in 1400. By 1850, things are looking pretty different, and the diversity of printed materials has fundamentally changed what people could say. The printing press allowed people with grievances, to use Gladwell’s formulation, to communicate with each other much more efficiently than they previously could, which leads to a lot of political, social, scientific, and philosophical developments that most of us living today approve of. How many of us want to return to being illiterate serfs toiling in fields for distant masters?
Gladwell is right in one sense: the media is probably overstating the importance of Twitter and SMS. But both of those still play an important role in what’s going on. Somehow, people with grievances against monarchs and dictators weren’t all that successful on average in the years prior to ~1600. After that, they got more and more successful, to the point where a fair bit of world’s population now lives without dictators. Part of the reason is because ideas about freedom and good governance could be disseminated cheaply, where before they couldn’t, and everyone spent most waking hours covered in shit, farming, and hoping they’re not going to starve to death in late winter / early spring.
Mark at the computing education blog says, “A particularly interesting anecdote for me is the below: That the Internet was turned off in Egypt, but the protests continued. So what role was Facebook and Twitter playing, really?” Depends on the timeframe. Various technological tools helped people initially organize and helped the conditions for organization come about. They will probably do so again in the future. In the long term, such tools will probably create the conditions for much larger projects that we only dimly perceive now. I would predict what those will be, but things have a habit of turning out much stranger than random prognosticators like me can predict.