Formulating my response to Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker, “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” was harder than it looked at first. On its face, Gladwell’s argument seems to stand strong against even the most acerbic critic, poised on the titanium crutch of the unbreakable human spirit:
People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.
Even on my dourest of days, I don’t want to jump into the ring and argue that people can’t do amazing things in groups. Leipzig, Paris, and the newest battleground – Egypt – showcase triumphs of human organization and cohesion that stand as a testament to a fundamental tenacity and flexibility no matter how exigent the circumstances.
People can do great things, it’s true. But people don’t do great things by simply having the potential energy of the human spirit stored up like a watchspring. Doing great things is accomplished by doing great things, which requires moving from place to place, transmitting ideas, and acquiring logistical support along the way, whether through technology, other human beings, or some combination of the two.
It is that very relationship – the useful combination between humans and technology – that is of interest and utility in this discussion, both historically and in the Egypt situation; the very same relationship that is scoffed off as unimportant by Gladwell in his article.
I couldn’t disagree with him more. This relationship is critically important. Here’s why.
The Act of Mobilization
Look at Revolutionary France, Cold-War Leipzig, and Today’s Egypt as force-matching exercises between two opposing sides – the citizens and the state institutions (police, military, mercenaries). I admit up front that the forced duality makes the situation seem more solid than fluid; in reality, state institutions and citizenry are made of of individuals; they grow, shrink, and turn sides in a fairly fluid manner given the appropriate catalyst, but this function hydraulically influences the larger conflict between two sides that I’m outlining. If you’d like, it’s not two granite rocks colliding, but two flavors of jello, and sometimes they mix in the middle.
In the case of revolt – the circumstance in all three – mobilization of one group to a critical mass ensures greater success in any endeavor against the other side, even if it’s a standoff in the middle of the city. Therefore, both sides benefit from two parallel activities:
- Organizing one’s own forces in strategically important areas
- Disrupting organization of the opponent’s forces to prevent buildup in strategically important areas
The relative value of each activity may not be strictly the same for each side, but both sides require a common task in either scenario: the ability to communicate in the act of mobilization.
Imagine the simplest case. You want a dozen people to aggregate around a landmark at noon. If they aren’t at the landmark, or they are there too early or too late, you won’t have your dozen at the same time at the same place, which is goal #1 above.
View your attempt at mobilization as a function of multiplication. If you were to ask each person to meet you, you’d choose the fastest communication method that would reach the most people.
Now, consider your opponent. If they were directly interested in breaking up your group of twelve, they’d use communication among their agents that would ensure as many of your group were unreachable or unable to make the rendezvous – and they’d communicate as fast as possible, too.
Expanding it out to the historical scenarios:
- 1700’s France – Horse Rider – Minutes to Hours Per Message – 1 to 2 Per Message
- 1980’s Leipzig – Church Meetings – Minutes Per Message – Thousands Per Message
- Egypt Today – Twitter – Seconds Per Message – Hundreds of Thousands Per Message
- 1700’s France – Carrier Pigeon or Chappe Telegraph – Minutes Per Message – Hundreds Per Message
- 1980’s Leipzig – Military Radios – Seconds Per Message – Thousands Per Message
- Egypt Today – Secure Net – Seconds Per Message – Tens of Thousands Per Message
What’s not strictly important is the numbers on their own for either side. What matters is the inequality in the numbers between sides for a given time period.
The Mobilization Gap
The first principles in assessing a group’s ability to organize are the speed, breadth, and reliability of the organizational messages they send – without them, no physical movements can be coordinated.
If we take the roles of the two parties in any civil conflict as being mutually antagonistic, then each conflict is a race between the sides on each axis of communication – by increasing the speed, breadth, or reliability of their communication past the opposition, their aggregate organizational ability increases versus the opposition: this is the development of a Mobilization Gap.
- If I don’t have Twitter and they don’t have Twitter, we’re okay.
- If I don’t have Twitter but they do have Twitter, we’re in trouble.
It is in this gap that sides begin to win the organization battle against their opponents. Tyranny is not guaranteed if states widen the gap significantly to their advantage versus the citizenry, but the possibility grows with the gap.
With variance for cultural differences, I believe the Gap has been closing over time as the time between civilian versions of military technologies grows shorter. While I won’t try to prove it, I feel strongly that along these axes, citizenry in many nations have gained nearly as much organizational ability as state institutions as they approach the present day; The Mobilization Gap between the two sides is shrinking.
The Weapon of Reversion
The potential of tyranny – or anarchy – now rests on the ability of sides to artificially widen the gap versus their opponents. Rather than create technologies suddenly, short-term solutions have come in the form of reversion: shutting down or otherwise rendering ineffective the technological advantages of a side. In the case of Egypt, this tactic was clear in the government’s universal shutdown of state-influenced Internet services (all of them) across the country – followed shortly by cell phone service. At the same time, the state’s own communication nets – military radio systems et al, doubtlessly stayed up and running.
The ultimate result – the citizenry could certainly try to organize – but with a major communication disadvantage versus the state institution, antagonistic action from the state could rapidly undo fledgling efforts quicker and with more reliability than the citizenry could launch new ones.
I believe it may have only been through the existence of a well-known meeting place (Tahrir Square), broadcast well before the shutdown, that organization was able to continue. In future conflicts, the shutdown may easily come earlier and with far greater efficacy. If it does, it may be effective enough to prevent us from hearing a word about it.
Understanding that any organization a citizenry or state institution undertakes, it does relative to the opposing side is the key to identifying the weakness in Gladwell’s argument. Citizens stripped of their technological tools – whether they are termed “rights” or not – may lead to far worse fates than inconvenience on the part of protesters forced to rely on antiquated methods and a dogged determinism to rally in the face of state forces brandishing superior organizational skills; it may easily lead to the complete dissolution of a gathering that may have been the start of positive change.
But then, how would we know? You never hear about the revolts that get silenced early.