Photography by Hossam el Hamalawy.
The “technological revolution” was a phrase coined in the 1920s when technology and its potential contributions to social change were only beginning to be glimpsed. It entered into common usage around the time of the ‘White Heat’ ideas of progress in the 1960s. Since the 1980s information has been the technology with the sharpest social elbows.
Nowadays, almost everyone accepts the idea that an information revolution is a disruptive force, something that comes and shakes stuff up. Information revolutionised the music business and the film business; the crowds are gathering, ready with their torches, to burn down the publishing business next. Information revolutionised our idea of privacy with the ability to share reams of ‘personal’ information semi-publicly on Facebook; even your cool, loveable Apple computer keeps records of your movements. The real story of what information technology has revolutionised has something to do with all those things but, when looked at on a global scale, they’re not what really matters.
What mobile phones have done in parts of the developing world is a little more significant for the history of mankind than the question of whether fashion magazines will survive or how long it will take our children to evolve super-thumbs. Mobile telephones in Africa and the Indian sub-continent are a cross between the NHS, EastEnders, Bloomberg Business Channel and NatWest bank. They have become a tool for work, health and finance, and they sustain a sense of being part of a social fabric for migrant workers far from home. Mobile telephony has been a far more effective agent of social change than 50-plus years of international aid and NGO action. Mobile phones enable societies to change from the ground up; cocoa farmers in Ghana find it very useful to have access to the same market intelligence as traders on Wall Street. The information revolution has made possible the advent and exchange of a new kind of revolutionary information.
During and after the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran in 2009 there were a lot of claims and counter-claims as to the significance of social networking in facilitating social and political change. It was the first Twitter revolution; the total number of Twitter members in Iran at the time was less than 3000. Likewise this year’s Arab Spring has brought us a Facebook page, put up by an Egyptian Google employee, that took down a dictator of 30 years’ standing in three weeks. The same extravagant claims and counter-claims are once more being bandied about. Whether you agree or disagree with such claims, some other contemporary truths are harder to dispute – like the fact that one matchstick can start a forest fire or that the solitary shoe-thrower from Baghdad had more potency as propaganda than two million anti-war bloggers or one million demonstrators walking the streets of London.
Revolutionary Road (a very great 1961 book by Richard Yates, since made into a quite good movie; not seen the t-shirt) maps out the human longing for freedom and creativity and the human fear of choosing it. A suburban couple teeter on the verge of escaping their gilded but suffocating cage for a new life as Bohemians in Paris but at the last minute the husband chickens out. Tempted by a newfangled bit of kit (something called a “business computer”) and promised promotion, he chooses an upgrade at his dead-end job over the fearful promise of freedom. A good book tells you about historical conditions, a great book about the human condition. We have an open window to the world – the actual world – out there, an unknown yet utterly familiar ocean of peoples heaving and rumbling in frustration, longing and rage. Do we dive in or shut the window and draw the curtains? §
Image courtesy Messages from Tahrir: a collection of images by 35 photographers, largely protesters, edited by Karima Khalil, published by American University in Cairo Press.