Not all that Twitter’s is gold

By Isaac Himmelman


In the middle part of the 15th century Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The effects of the printing press were paradigm shifting. The ability to mass produce the written word shook the foundations of the ruling order. Feudalism fell apart and in its place were planted seeds out of which blossomed the inner workings of the modern state. The ease at which words, gospels and ideas could be produced for a mass audience, spread across borders and consumed by the human race suffering from an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and information, united peoples and created nations. Yes, the printing press stands as one of western civilization’s greatest contributions to the world. Gutenberg’s memory is forever embedded in the groundwork of our societies. He was the Prometheus of his time, and for that, humanity is forever grateful.

Now fast forward, say, 560 years. The fluidity of information first tapped into with the advent of the printing press has increased to the nth degree with the globalization of the Internet. A Catholic bishop from the year 1456, once brought to tears at the sight of the Divine word printed a hundred times over on leather bound copies of the Gutenberg Bible, would melt into oblivion at the thought of the woman next to me on a London- bound plane pulling up an Alexandrian library’s worth of texts from a tablet she keeps in her purse.

If you wish to see clear evidence of Johannes Gutenberg’s legacy alive and thriving today hop online, and submerge yourself in that beautiful monstrosity of information that is the Internet.

And yet one wonders, just as the Gutenberg printing press slowly ate away at the once sturdy pillars of Feudal society, perhaps so too might the Internet deconstruct our current paradigm of society. We’re seeing the birth pangs of this already. Beginning on the streets of Chişinău, Moldova in April 2009, an estimated 15,000 citizens of this post-Soviet Eastern European country protested the results of a fraudulent election. Their demonstrations were organized through the then recently introduced social networking site, Twitter. Sadly, what is now often referred to as the “Twitter Revolution,” did not bring about any visible change to the corrupted framework of Moldavian government. However, the Twitter Revolution did hint at the web’s awesome potential to shake up the ruling order or at the very least unnerve seated rulers of corrupt governments.

Two years later and the Internet is at it again. First on the streets of Tunisia where people protested against the regime of sitting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a leader who managed to garner a majority of votes in every election since coming to office in 1987. This brings to mind the Middle East’s most famous post-partisan and serial election victor Saddam Hussein. The Tunisian protests have resulted in a domino effect in the region. In Egypt citizens have taken to the streets demanding a change in the country’s governing hierarchy. Leaders in countries like Syria and Yemen are now keeping an eye glued to Al Jazeera for updates on the future careers of their contemporaries.

In a recent piece written exclusively for the “New Yorker” online edition last week, Malcolm Gladwell argues against the notion that social networking vies-a-vie the Internet is bound to bring about any substantial change in the same vane as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Gladwell sees the hype around social networking’s role in the Egyptian protests to be, well just hype. Yet the fact that the Tunisian unrest comes only months after Wikileaks released U.S. diplomatic cables describing the Ben-Ali family as a “quasi-mafia” should not be seen as mere coincidence. And if the Internet’s role in the Egyptian unrest is being exaggerated, why then, did President Hosni Mubarak find it necessary to temporarily disconnect his country from the web simultaneously promising his people another round of free and fare elections?

Hamas, Hezbollah, the Nazis: all these parties were voted into office in free elections. Mubarak – a leader whose job post is left redundant if and when Egypt institutes democratic reforms – will cut off the Internet, but never shy away from a free election. This is because democracies are not born through elections. Democracies are born through a free flowing of information forming an aggregate of opposing ideas and opinions. The Internet embodies this free flowing of information. With the Internet, dictators will begin finding it increasingly more difficult to stop this free flowing.

Soon censorship will have become as anachronistic as serfdom. Rulers of all countries will be expected to run their governments with the upmost transparency and the citizens of autocracies will take to the streets, demanding fair elections and open web access.

It is in this way that the Internet is the printing press of our age Just as the advent of the printing press eased the transfer of information, thus transforming governments of the past, so too the Internet, in increasing the breadth of information and the speed to which said information can be accessed and communicated, will transform governments of the present. Egypt is just the beginning. Realize as you sit by your computer searching for breaking news updates online that the seated leaders of every corrupt government on Earth – from the crony-capitalists of the former Soviet Union to the theocrats of the Middle East – are sitting in their offices in Moscow or Riyadh, eyes glued to their computer screens, hands trembling in fear.

Isaac Himmelman is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].