Thinking about the importance of communications “revolutions.”

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There has been a lot of talk about the importance of social media in recent world events. See for instance, here, here, and here. Some of the more astute commentators have referred to earlier technological revolutions and their impact on television: usenet, fax machines, television, cameras, telegraph, and even the printing press. One technology, however, always seem to get left out, maybe because it seems too “obvious,” and that is literacy.

This is too bad because there is a great literature on the subject. A user named “dinalopez” has put together a wonderful bibliography on WorldCat – a list which contains many of my favorite articles on the subject, as well as many I haven’t read. I wanted to draw upon this critical literacy studies literature to make three points about technology and social change.

The first point comes from a paper F. Niyi Akinnaso (my Ph.D. advisor) wrote for the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. “Schooling, Language, and Knowledge in Literate and Nonliterate Societies” draws on Akinnaso’s knowledge of Yoruba divination practices to challenge the “over-simplified view of education in nonliterate societies.” This is important because he shows that the social organization of schooling associated with literate societies is not dependent on literacy, and that similar practices can be found in some nonliterate societies. He does not deny that these institutional patterns are more typical of literate societies, but it would be a mistake to attribute too much explanatory force to literacy. The Yoruba case shows that literacy is not a necessary factor in the creation of such social institutions.

The second point comes from Brian Street’s important book Literacy in theory and Practice. In this book Street argues that there is not one universal form of literacy, but multiple “literacies.” In Iran in the 1970s (where he did fieldwork) many people learn to “read” the Koran by wrote memorization. They are literate in the sense that they can look at a page of the Koran and recite the appropriate passages, but not in the sense of being able to use their literacy to read other texts besides the Koran.

Finally, the third point I wanted to make about literacy comes from an article by Terence Turner about how the Kayapo in Brazil have appropriated the use of video cameras. I put this in the context of literacy precisely because one of the important aspects of video use by the Kayapo is to record the promises of politicians. Before video cameras they similarly made audio recordings – both useful methods for a society which (at the time) lacked literacy. It is also worth mentioning a second aspect of their use of video technology, which is their appearance, in native-dress, at political protests carrying video cameras. Here their use of video cameras became the story, one with broad international appeal, allowing them to reach a much larger audience.

So what do these three points teach us about “Twitter Revolutions”? First, the technology itself is not as important as the social conditions in which it is used. In many cases social media is more a means of communicating what is happening on the ground with the outside world, as diasporic populations keep in touch with their friends and family at home via Facebook and Twitter, than it is a means of organizing activity on the ground. If these social networks exist, families will communicate with them however they can, whether by usenet, fax machine, telegraph, or letter. The second point is that the mere existence of these technologies does not imply that people will necessarily make use of them in a particular way. Certainly there is a huge difference in how Twitter is used at the annual anthropology conferences and at an event like SXSW. And the third point is that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for people to be fascinated by how this technology is being used in Egypt. Certainly it has allows us to voyeuristically participate in world events from afar. Whether this helps or not is hard to say, but I’ll leave you with this quote by Aaron Bady:

I am under no illusions that it will do the people of Egypt any particular good for me to retweet links to articles and images and expressions of the righteous human spirit so gloriously on display in Egypt right now — much as I would like it to — but that’s not really why I’ve been doing it. It’s selfish. It is for me, because it’s what I need to do as a person whose spiritual body has gotten very hungry. I want to be a part of something hopeful because I find that too much hopelessness has crept too deeply into the person I have no choice but to be.

33 thoughts on “Thinking about the importance of communications “revolutions.”

  1. I love that quote so hard. My “spiritual body has gotten very hungry”; it reminds me of the struggle in Camus’ The Plague to articulate why one feels that a certain course of action is right or why one ought to do “what is right”. I’ll have to think more about what it means to “act” by linking articles, etc. on FB, something I do compulsively.

  2. One critical factor to consider about new technologies of communication beyond traditional literacy (that is, the graphic representation of knowledge on some surface) is their contribution to instantaneous, even simultaneous, sharing of information. The internet is particularly useful in providing the platform for this, pushing innovators to device new technologies, especially social media, for sharing information. Their impact on the ongoing political sunami in (Arab) North Africa cannot be denied, as even evidenced by the clampdown on the internet and reporters by Egyptian authorities.

    What is particularly refreshing about Kerim Friedman’s observations is that literacy won’t go away, despite these new technologies. There is, in fact, a sense in which they could be viewed as “new literacies”, modifying and extending our traditional notions of literacy. When we talk about a recorded tape or video, we are not too far away from talking about scripts produced with hieroglyphics, the alphabet, Inca quipu, or the Vai script. We get a different feel from each medium alright, but we are essentially talking about variants of information recording which traditional literacy first made possible on an unprecedented scale. It’s all about archiving, transporting, and sharing knowledge across space and time.

  3. All of your points resonate, but I want to pull the second one out and, I hope, pursue the topic in one interesting direction. You note that “the mere existence of these technologies does not imply that people will necessarily make use of them in a particular way”, and it seems to me that underlying the false assumption (that the tech will lead inevitably to a particular use) is the idea that the ideology with which the use of this technology is primarily (perhaps originally?) associated is not a component of the technology itself.

    The idea that a particular technology would lead to a particular use, like the idea that being able to cipher and decipher graphic representations of language will lead to a particular sort of cognition and/or political organization, has a powerful relationship, it seems to me, with the idea that a particular sort of economic organization must lead to a particular sort of political organization. These narratives are so familiar that discourses fall into them effortlessly, erasing any internal contradictions and making important aspects of events invisible to those for whom the narratives hold. Beyond working in our classrooms and in forums such as this, does anyone have suggestions for challenging the underlying narratives in ways that will reach a broader audience?

  4. Given Aaron Brady’s personal statement, I wonder about us in terms of political events like Egypt and the use of social media, not to overlook public media’s use of visual images and tweets to lend veritas to a news media’s perspective on unfolding events. But Brady’s statement brings to mind T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, complete with a cell phone in hand. What led Eliot to pen in 1915, “let us go then, you and I,” has of late become, “let me tweet you about X in 165 characters.”

    Mightn’t we be cynical and say the best social media has done is flash mobs and getting Betty White on SNL? I agree with Brady, our bodies are soulfully hungry, but social media only reinforces how distant we actually are from what we perceive as vital–Eliot’s unanswered question. Kerim is right in noting how this has led us to voyeristically participate from afar, but are we really participating? What questions have we asked each other over this? What has this to do then with literacy? Is a tweet a short, short, short story? Whose voice is it? Whose ideology? Literacy is above all form that is culturally relevant (I am straying very close to Barthes’ notion of myth). Is a tweet a part of a subculture of literacy? In our world, why has the tweet, that light weight conveyance of information, attained the myth of complicity with truth?

  5. “First, the technology itself is not as important as the social conditions in which it is used.”

    Exactly. The technologies themselves aren’t inherently anything. Cameras can be used to document war crimes, and they can be used as surveillance tools. Twitter can be used to organize protests, just as much as it can be used to disseminate the latest nonsense about Justin Bieber. Indeed, the social context matters and the tools can be used for all sorts of purposes.

    Thanks for this post, Kerim.

  6. Ryan Twitter can be used to organize protests, just as much as it can be used to disseminate the latest nonsense about Justin Bieber. Indeed, the social context matters and the tools can be used for all sorts of purposes

    We mustn’t forget part of that social context is the social media tools. In a McLuhanesque view, we can’t simply dissect out the social media, such as Twitter from the context, just as we can’t dissect out the dissemination of public opinion in the French Revolution. The idea of “public opinion” is part of a new politics of contestation within a theoretical model of absolutist monarchy. Keith Baker traces this back to Montesquieu’s writings on the Glorious Revolution, but there it arises through the public press and the distribution of pamphlets.

    Why in the modern context does a tweet seem to carry as much weight as some analyst of Middle Eastern Studies or some reporter from the scene? In the French context, can we have public opinion without literacy? Are tweets or images gathered via cell phones examples of public opinion? And if not, then what are they? I disagree with your opinion that technologies aren’t inherently anything. I think they are everything–but to understand them, we have to understand the cultural context that lends them such weight. We may have once believed that the state shone forth through the majesty of a single person, the king. Now it seems to shine forth through the LEDs on cell phones. We have to ask questions of this technology from both sides in the communication channel, both those sending and those receiving–why choose this, why accord such weight?

  7. I think part of the groundwork for critiquing the “real” effect of social media has to be a hard look at the possibilities for action in the same context.

    What I mean is that it’s easy to say that social media is alienating because it diverts our energy from doing something “real” — but that critique in turn needs to be subject to a clear-eyed view of what “real” action is possible.

    For example, I know, at second-hand, a fellow from the West living in Egypt at the moment, and his blogging (forum-posting, technically) has been very interesting (and disturbing — he’s lost one friend already :( ). He’s right there, almost on the scene, but his possibilities for action are quite limited; he’s been trying, without success, to get food and medicine to the people in the square, but avoiding direct involvement because his friends have told him that the presence of foreigners will encourage the demonization of the movement as instigated by the West.

    I don’t think we can just say that Brody is chasing *false* involvement at the expense of “really” doing something. The reason I brought up the Plague, and through it the kind of existentialist thinking you see in Michael Jackson’s anthropology fr ex., is that I think there’s a veil of ignorance between our actions and “really affecting” the world.

    So while I’m skeptical as anyone of someone clicking a hyperlink and thinking to themselves that they’re saving the world, I’m not sure I want to buy into a separation between “fake” and “real” involvement that reproduces a distinction between virtuality and materiality. I think maybe something *really is* different about involvement in the presence of social media, it might just not be obvious how.

  8. I don’t know why my post was deleted.

    [Because it was off-topic. Because you are trying to restart an argument which resulted in a previous thread being closed down. And because you framed it in a way which was a personal attack on another user. The comments on Savage Minds are not an open forum but a place to extend discussion and give feedback on the individual posts to which they are attached. There are other places on the web to discuss your dislike of Latour. - The Management]

  9. Guys, the reporting function seems to be broken. It returns a Javascript:void(0) message. Thanks!

  10. I’m having the same issue reporting comments. I’m using the latest edition of firefox. A dialog box comes up but when I hit the button, the dialog box just remains there and there is no indication that my reporting went was received.

  11. Ah, that is actually a feature and not a bug: the current plugin sends the report but provides no feedback. We posted about this when we first installed it but of course that was a while ago. We are looking for alternatives but there are not that many stable WordPress plugins with this functionality. We’re working on it but… yeah, it kinda sucks.

  12. Fred,

    Sorry for not replying–I missed your response somehow.

    “I disagree with your opinion that technologies aren’t inherently anything. I think they are everything–but to understand them, we have to understand the cultural context that lends them such weight.”

    By “not inherently anything” I meant that they are not automatically good, bad, revolutionary, or meaningless. There is nothing inherently revolutionary, for example, about twitter. It CAN be used as a crucial tool in social movements and protests, but the technology can also be used to pass along fairly useless information as well. So yes, these things can be incredibly meaningful, and the socio-cultural context is key to understanding that. My point is that there is nothing automatic about this. What matters is what people actually DO with these technologies. It’s how people use and think about these tools that matters most, as I see it.

  13. correct…

    Why is it hard to understand that a technology is only a technology because of the people who make and use them? Try giving your laptop to a forest-dwelling nomadic group. Let’s see if it will be a technology to them. Therefore, a material or a piece of technology is not something inherently.

  14. Not wanting to speak for Fred, I wonder if he’s trying to say, for example, that the 140-character limit on twitters is a framing device that shapes the possibilities of action. He did mention McLuhan. I would say that, while technologies are not inherently good bad or revolutionary, what people DO with them is not totally undefinable either. After all, a “technology” is a tool, something that is *designed* and by implication, designed for some purpose. It has a potential for certain kinds of action (and, if only by omission, not for others) built in to it.

    Fred takes what I *think* is a more critical view of these technologies than I’m inclined to, as a confirmed internet addict. But I don’t think it’s a matter of attributing evil or conservatism or whatever to technologies as trying not to let the agentive, individual account of their use erase the fact that their use is, at least partly, pre-defined.

    “Can you use Twitter to fix my car?”
    “Well, what do you mean by ‘use’?”

  15. Andrew,

    “Not wanting to speak for Fred, I wonder if he’s trying to say, for example, that the 140-character limit on twitters is a framing device that shapes the possibilities of action. He did mention McLuhan.”

    Ya, and that’s a good point. You might be right about where Fred was going with things. These technologies certainly do have certain possibilities and limitations–and that was a lot of what McLuhan talked about.

  16. If my car overheated, could I not tweet about it to let my friends know so they could tell me how to fix it? Plain and simple, tweeter is something to someone. A criminal gang used twitter in their carnapping operations, and cops, too, used it to catch them. Google it. It is even used for sex. Hello! Yes, I read the post of that blogger who asked help through twitter. Of course, she should expect multiple responses since she admittedly said her car was “fucked up.”

  17. Didn’t Mcluhan state that technology is the extension of the human body? How can a technology limiting an act(ion) of a human be Mcluhanesque? Is it the people behind twitter or twitter itself as a form of technology that imposes restrictions and limitations?

    The problems of separating technology or materials from the domain of humans are endless. One can then ask, if you take your car to a shop for some fixing, who/what really fixes it? The car shop, the mechanic, or the wrench?

  18. I didn’t mention restriction. Clearly Twitter allows people to do something they couldn’t do before there was Twitter, they can tweet, so at least hypothetically it expands the boundaries of action. What I’m saying is that the expansion is not itself content-free, ie, it doesn’t make us more able to act on a kind of scalar measure, if you will. It’s a particular sort of action shaped by the technology — the 140 character limit. And this potentially has consequences for understanding what hte social impact of the technology will be.

    And there’s always the devil of having limited time and energy, and thus having to pick and choose between different avenues for action — about which we can then legitimately wonder, which is the best for achieving my goals?

    The example of tweeting for help with a broken car is exactly what I had in mind, because the statement “can x be used to do y” is inherently an ambiguous one. You can’t, for example, use Twitter as a pair of jumper cables. Technology mismatch!

  19. Did you really mean that there is no sense of restriction and limitation in this phrase, “that the 140-character limit on twitters is a framing device that shapes the possibilities of action”? Shaping and framing are restrictive and limiting no matter how you understand (or bastardize) them.

    Twitter as a pair of jumping cables? C’mon now. Before entertaining that thought, problematize first the materiality of twitter– is it an idea/concept or a form/object?

    Besides, one can only be something that already exists if both share the same function. Example, fork and toothpick. I can use them to pick food or clean my teeth or use them to poke your eyes. Basic logic in analogy, I say.

  20. “One can then ask, if you take your car to a shop for some fixing, who/what really fixes it? The car shop, the mechanic, or the wrench?”

    That question reminds me of this:

    “Thus, if a mechanic with an artificial arm is trying repair and engine, then the arm may be regarded either as part of the organism that is struggling with the engine, or as part of the machinery with which man is struggling…The chisel in a sculptor’s hand can be regarded either as part of the complex biophysical mechanism that is shaping the marble, or it can be regarded as part of the material which the nervous system is attempting to control” (Ashby 1960 quoted in Geertz 1963:9).

  21. I’m going to have to ask people to stay focused on communications technologies, and not let this devolve into a discussion about technology in the abstract. Thank you.

  22. Just an off-the-cuff observation, getting back to communication, is that while social media was heavily used on the streets, has anyone heard of any tweets or facebook comments from the talks themselves, or are they closed door? I know a lot of politicians use Twitter during their day which provide a great insight into the daily chore of politics; however, in the case of Egypt has there been anything like that? During the talks wouldn’t this be the time most Egyptians want access to the content of these meetings? This is something Kerim did not highlight, the nature of instant access andinstant reply through re-tweets etc. that has made current communication technologies so powerful. Combined with a global access to social media, a degree of forensic analysis by multiple voices can be made over a constant 24 hours stream.

    One thing I keep wondering about modern communications technologies like Twitter is whether or not it is emulating Raymond William’s idea of “flow” which he applied to television. In some sense the constant additions of tweets, even when individually we sleep, or work, makes social media akin to television’s constant flow.

  23. Fred:

    “In some sense the constant additions of tweets, even when individually we sleep, or work, makes social media akin to television’s constant flow.”

    So we’re all connected–sometimes. Not when we sleep, or eat, or have other things to do. The connection is sporadic and dependent upon “available time.” But everything keeps going, and we miss many bits of information and messages when we’re sleeping, as Fred brings up. Maybe we wake up in the morning and catch up on everything that “happened,” or maybe we just move on and start from a new point. Like TV, we just check in and out of the whole “flow” of things.

    So we check in and out, participate in events to a greater and lesser extent–but what are the effects? I think the quote that Kerim cites at the end of his post brings up some interesting questions not only about meaning and motivation (ie why people use these tools and what, if anything, they get out of them), but also the actual effects of use overall. So what happens when people “participate” in these events (Egypt, etc)? Does it “help” to participate? Is the decision to follow along and participate in any way connected to the actual events over THERE, or are the effects more bounded to particular social (and online) relationships and conversations? I think the question about “effects” is pretty fascinating to think about, if not nearly impossible to approach at some levels.

  24. “I’m going to have to ask people to stay focused on communications technologies, and not let this devolve into a discussion about technology in the abstract.”

    Good call, Kerim.

  25. One difference between television flow and Twitter flow is that it’s easier to “time travel”, ie, the flow may be ongoing while you sleep or work, but you can always pick up where you left off, go back to before you noticed it was going on, etc. (well, you can do this with TV now too ;)

  26. There’s TiVo and DVR for TV and saving and backreading for Twitter. You can choose what to record and watch on TV as you can also chose what to archive and read in Twitter. What’s the difference besides being two different media?

  27. I truly appreciate the topic, especially how literacy is tied into it, then given examples. I found all quite appealing, but given my bias (due to my area of interest) I cannot stop rethinking over the Kayapo, in particular. I am brought back to a time when I, by surely accidental coincidence, came across a program in which the Kayapo patrolled their territory in a plane. Great post.

  28. What’s the difference besides being two different media?

    Duration. Unless you confine your TV watching to 15 or 30-second commercials, choosing what to watch on TV involves a commitment of time a couple of orders of magnitude bigger than reading a tweet.

    There may also be important differences depending on how the information in question is displayed. Consider, for example, the difference between watching a movie on a 60-inch plasma TV and checking your tweets on a smart phone.

    Interface can also make a huge difference. My appreciation of both Twitter and Facebook has quadrupled since I began checking them a couple of times a day via Flipbook on my iPad. Now what was just a list of stuff from each appears in an appealing electronic magazine format and with a couple of strokes of my finger, images and articles expand automatically. A totally new experience.

    There is, in short, a lot more to how information affects us than access and choice alone.

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