I returned from a week-long holiday to find that a part of the world had been turned upside down. I’ll be honest, the first thought I had was one of shame; how could I, not only as a human being, not only as a student, but also as a student of International Relations (and an aspiring journalist) have permitted myself to remain totally oblivious to what had been going on around me? Self-discipline aside, how did I manage it? A friend of mine put it best when he said (in a message via Facebook, of course) : “you mean you have been too busy to watch 1989 mark 2?”.
Since then I have tried to absolve myself by drowning in an ocean of current affairs articles. In case you hadn’t guessed, the second Berlin Wall allusion was in relation to the recent outbreak of violent social activism, which has spread like bacterium to Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya to Bahrain…It was reading about a new world, every day there seems to be news of more atrocities, more protesters shot at or beaten or arrested by the state. A female nurse trying to cope with the waves of victims from the government backlash (victims who had incidentally been asleep following a day’s peaceful protest) summed up the whole situation; glaring at the Al Jazeera news camera she shouted incredulously: “Is this the democracy? Is this Bahrain? I don’t know!”
Yet what has astonished me even more than the crimes committed by these governments against their people (I won’t call them citizens, as this implies a level of freedom and civil rights that very few enjoy(ed) under Gaddafi, Mubarak or Ben Ali…and even Bahrain has been criticised for its lack of political freedom), is the manner in which communications technologies have been used.
I remember my father telling me about his time as a cameraman on ITV News,in particular relating to the coverage of the Paris riots of May 68. He remembers waiting in huddles around the radio, the scrabble of journalists when any news came through, the incredible pictures of students throwing cobblestones, pictures only obtained after hours or days of waiting. In history lessons students study posters, propaganda pamphlets and flyers pronouncing epic, slogans: “Be reasonable! Demand the Impossible!”. Will future students find themselves studying print-outs from Twitter?
How different it is today! Protesters communicate with one another via mobile phones, they Tweet about events as they happen, post videos taken on their phones onto Youtube. In Egypt, many have credited much of the stirring up of anti-government action to a Facebook group called : “We are all Khaled Saeed” and to a video posted on Youtube by Asma Mahfouz. In her video, the human rights activist calls for people to join her on January 25th at Tahrir Square, she calls on people to Tweet, to send text messages and to tell friends on Facebook. Both this video and photos of Saeed’s mutilated body were circulated online, providing the impetus for a flurry of widespread and tenacious demonstrations . Not only this, but reporters across the world were informed of events almost instantaneously and with incredible rigour. Videos of police beating protesters, harassing journalists, joining the demonstrations, and even acting inconspicuously during the widespread looting that took place when the government shut down banks and shops…seemingly everything was documented and everyone became a reporter. There was always someone in the right place at the right time.
The salience of mobiles phones and the internet was not lost on the governments involved; in Egypt and Libya internet and mobile phone networks were shut off periodically, and Al Jazeera was tellingly suspended from national television broadcasts in an attempt to stem the flow of information not only between the demonstrators, but also with the outside world.
It is the next bit that astonishes me: information just kept coming.
From old transistor radios to Morse code…people continued to let the world know what was happening in their country and the riots continued. What is the significance of this? So far, it would appear that new communications technology has been the essential instrument for informing, organising and motivating the powerful social struggles that we have been witnessing over the past few weeks. Take that away, even only partially, and I for one would expect it to make a very strong impact. Apparently not.
It may be that as a child of the Megabyte Generation, I have come to regard these new technologies simply as utensils: useful, certainly, but ultimately incapable of teaching me anything in themselves. A mobile phone allows me to call someone who can give me an answer to my question, the internet gives me access to a collective library of information (more or less accurate), but in themselves can a heap of fibre-optics and touch-screens teach me anything new? I feel like I have missed something. Maybe it is about the value of communication itself, the belief that by invading someone else’s private reality I can make my reality theirs, and vice versa; the idea and overriding conviction that there is somebody out there who needs to know. Perhaps it is the notion that we ought all to take action and that, as bystanders, we not only have a right to speak out- we have a duty; we must find the means to do so, however archaic or technologically advanced these means may be.