Can the Digital World Be Democratic?

Aeon

Shortly after midnight on Friday, 28 January 2011, someone in 26 Ramses Street, a nondescript 12-storey office building in downtown Cairo, turned off Egypt’s internet. No email, web access, WhatsApp or Skype. It didn’t matter. A few hours later, Egyptians came out and made a revolution anyway.

Tahrir Square, the physical epicentre of that revolution, was many things: a performance, a myth, an arena of battle and an alternative story. But above all, it was a response to a society in which individual stakes in the status quo had become exceptionally unequal. As a result, it sought to provide an antidote to that inequality, with messy, mixed results. In Tahrir, emeritus professors rubbed shoulders with street vendors and steel workers; Salafists set up tents next to Marxist hipsters. The square cost nothing to enter, and its inhabitants policed it collectively on their own terms. It was a far cry from the Egypt beyond its borders, vast swathes of which had long been sealed off, commodified and guarded in the interests of private gain.

At its best, Tahrir was the quintessential public space, and contained echoes of the commons: the open land that once dominated much of early modern Europe, particularly in England, to which most members of the community could claim equal rights. ‘El-shari’ lina,’ protestors in Egypt chanted. ‘The streets are ours.’

As a rising tide of popular sovereignty on the Nile swept away Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak, an odd consensus swiftly developed among many academics, tech entrepreneurs and members of the ancien régime itself. It was that digital technologies had played a defining role in what happened, particularly the giant social media platforms that often style themselves as today’s global commons: supposed enablers of unmediated access to a shared social good that all can enjoy without fear or favour. The aim of Google, according to its parent company Alphabet, is ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’; Facebook’s mission statement is to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.

To the terrified old guard of Egyptian politics, that sort of language was unwelcome; the humming grid of infinitely interconnected nodes and data lines that ran through the national telecoms exchange at 26 Ramses Street had never seemed more tangible, solid or dangerous. Yet their diagnosis was wrong. It’s true that online communication played a critical component in the Egyptian revolution. But a manifestation was being mistaken for a cause.

Image: Flickr/Joelle L (CC)

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