I was talking to my mother on the phone the other day, and we took up casual discussion of the news. She brought up Egypt, and quickly came to the comment, “It’s amazing what that internet can do, isn’t it?”
I would have been content to pass the remark off as an instance of an older and relatively out-of-touch person ascribing almost magical qualities to a new technology that she’s just not familiar, but it seems like that sort of commentary has characterized a great deal of the media reporting on the topic. In light of that, I think it’s important to remember that the unrest in the Middle East didn’t start with a tweet – OMG you guyz, totes fed up with Mubarak, let’s march – it started with several people setting themselves on fucking fire.
Now that, my friends, is a breaking point. The decision that a social injustice has so impaired the sense of your life’s value that you are willing to die, and die in a terrifically awful way as a form of protest is an incredibly powerful thing. It makes the depth of the problem a people face so undeniably clear that they are spurned to massive action to honor that sacrifice. A facebook wall post does not really have the same impact. Internet communication is a terrific tool, but it’s just a tool. It’s not responsible for anything in and of itself. It is almost certainly the reason why the full course of these protests took months rather than years, but the speed of the communication does not reflect in any measure of the level of commitment of the protesters.
It is also worthwhile to remember that the Mubarak regime completely shut down the internet in response to the protests. The fact that they did not peter out as a result should make it vividly clear that the internet was not the thing driving the movement. That it continued on when it was no longer convenient to get in touch with people who weren’t in shouting distance goes to show that Egyptians were eager to organize on the ground and in the moment. And that is, after all, exactly what needs to be done, regardless of the level of involvement from Facebook and Twitter, if the strength of the movement comes from the presence of groups of real, live people in the physical streets.
It’s a peculiar Western tendency, but we seem to be enamored with the idea that great things can be achieved with a small amount of commitment from each of very large number of people. But if circumstances were dire and the people of America remained that lazy, I think they would find out that no matter how vast the communication network, if the people involved do not have a firm commitment, no real change is possible. We seem to like the idea that we can participate in revolutions by changing our backgrounds and using hash tags, but how many people in modern American society have really contributed something materially significant to an international movement? Plugging into what’s going on through our laptops and iPhones evidently feels participatory, but it’s not the same as being there and having to stick your neck out for the cause. Communication is not enough. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice something real, you aren’t about to accomplish anything. It makes sense, though, that we would have this sense that personal sacrifice and strength of commitment is not necessary. Even when it comes to war these days, we aren’t asked to so much as pay higher taxes, and some people seem to think that simply acknowledging that they’re happening, as with a bumper sticker, is a sufficient act of solidarity.
If we are ever to reach real breaking points, we have to realize that breaking points are not so easily reached.