The technological origins of the revolution in Egypt

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The current form of globalization is distinct from previous ones because it is conditioned by information technology. This technology, according to the sociologist Manuel Castells in his recent Networks of Outrage and Hope, is characterized by informational networks. Contemporary globalization extends its informational network structure into every domain of life: employment, romance, friendships and social movements.

Castells contends that a social movement -- whether progressive or conservative -- begins via an emotional process within individuals: human beings have numerous sentiments but two, fear and desire, are dominant. The former, when driven to an extreme, can become anger, while the latter, if inspired, can become hope. Political activism begins when an individual's fear of a more powerful entity turns to outrage: anger can incite the individual to become active against the entity or system they interpret as oppressing them. Without anger, the individual might not rebel, instead resigning themselves to an apparently immutable situation.

Various outraged individuals come together into a movement depending on their access to a communication technology and the cognitive consonance, emotional resonance and collective hope that it enables. If the communication space provided by the technology cannot be immediately controlled by the State or any other group that opposes the activists then the movement will have time to rapidly expand. One example of this process is the vlog that came to be known as "The Vlog that Helped Spark the Revolution." It was posted by Asmaa Mafhouz, a student at the University of Cairo, on her Facebook page on January 18, 2011: "I, a girl, posted that I will go down to Tahrir Square to stand alone and I'll hold the banner …. I am making this video to give you a simple message: we are going to Tahrir on January 25th…. If you stay home you deserve all that's being done to you, and you will be guilty before your nation and your people." The vlog was uploaded to YouTube and inspired thousands to the Square. Today's online access offers potential activists an autonomous arena through which to organize, network and construct collective meanings.

According to Castells, society is organized around the campaign for various forms of power; the most important one in the information age lies in control over how meaning is shaped in the minds of the public. A mobilization becomes either a reactive rebellion or a visionary revolution depending on the ideas, images and ideologies that are regularly communicated across the participants. The construction of meaning depends on the communication environment; that is, the technology that conveys meaning from person to person and group to group.

The contemporary online communication environment revises the geographic pattern of collective mobilization. Social movements historically occupied an urban space that becomes emblematic, for example the storming of the Bastille or the Boston Tea Party. Today the urban space enters into a relationship with cyberspace: Tahrir Square in Egypt has become not only an arena for local and global activists to defend but also an electronic symbol, regularly conveyed worldwide, of another world struggling to be born.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Screenshot of Asmaa Mafhouz's vlog. Source: Ron Rothbart/flickr

Thomas Ponniah's column is on hiatus while the writer is away and will return August 28.

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