Blog Post

Revolution in the Digital Age: Long Relationships in Quick Time

History will probably remember the beginning of the revolts that overturned the government in Egypt as January 25, 2011 - The Day of Revolt.  However, three days later President Mubarak turned off the internet, and that marked a day that shifted the revolt to a revolution - a force of undeniable, unstoppable strength of the people, for the people.


In his article Egyptians Were Unplugged, and Uncowed, Noam Cohen interviewed several young Egyptians who were present in Tahrir Square in those 18 days that shook the world.  For many of them it was the cessation of internet access that spurned them to join the revolt, swelling the crowds beyond the control of Hosni Mubaraks power as leader.

 

In that moment when individuals could not access each other or the outside world in the digital realm, there was no other choice but to take it old school and hit the streets.  That was when some of them discovered a couple of polar but compatible truths.  One, the streets still had the power to act as Twitter was unplugged. And two, the Internet had become so integral to society that it wasnt unreasonable to consider a constitutional guarantee of free access to it (Cohen, 2011). 

 

The digital world hadn't replaced the physical one ['Tahrir was a street Twitter.' (Cohen, 2011)] - the power of the network just shifted from the digital to the spatial.  People connected to each other as seamlessly on the streets of Cairo as they had in the air of the internet; but there is a critical, philosophical point within this distinction: there are two worlds now- the physical world of sensual being, and the ephemeral realm of digital engagement. 

 

Often we are so enmeshed in a relatively seamless and increasing integration of these two worlds that we forget to notice when we leave one for the other - we send an email to a colleague who is in the next room, or we 'friend' someone on Facebook who we just met and is standing right in front of us.  Perhaps the most illustrative of this is the keitai culture of teenagers in Japan, who engage each other via texts throughout the day while concomitantly engaging in daily routines like school, shopping, and eating - often many miles apart (See Nicholson in Crow et al., 2010)  The digital and sensual are no longer a bifurcation of reality so much as they are a collision.  Two separate but overlapping worlds exist simultaneously, marking a fundamental shift in how we know the world - an epistemology of digital existentialism, if you will.

 

Fundamental in this shift is the experience of time and relationships.  Recently a former student of mine passed away.  I found this out from a random post on my Facebook feed.  I hadn't seen this student in several years, but we had stayed connected on the internet.  I immediately shared the information with other former students and teachers that had known him when we had all been together on the physical campus.  Years had passed and people were literally spread out across the globe, but we were able to share our stories about him, and help each other and the family grieve collectively via Facebook.  I was not present for Brian's death, or even his memorial and funeral, but I remember the event clearly.  My memory of his death consists solely of experiences I did not have in the physical world, rather they were experienced only digitally.  Does that mean they were less real, or less valid?  Can I even really say I experienced them at all?

 

Paul Ricoeur reminds us of Baudelaire's construction of a memory crisis in which the truths of history are not as much a result of witnessing and remembering an event, in as much as they are the representation of the event through the subsequent narratives told about it.  However, this is more than Churchill's old adage: "History is written by the victors."  Ricoeur is pointing to a critical conflict between memory and the process of making past events into history: "on the one hand, history's claim to reduce memory to the level of one of its objects, and on the other hand, the claim of collective memory to subjugate history by means of the abuses of memory that the commemoration imposed by political powers or by pressure groups can turn into" (2004, p. 393).  Memory is conflictual because it is influenced by outside forces over time, but this is also perhaps key to answering his question of whether or not memory and the writing of history is either "poison or remedy,"  especially in the context of digital experience.

 

The digital world not only accepts and accentuates this complexity of time, it glorifies it.  In the physical world we experience time in a sensual and linear manner: we are born, we age, we die - this is sensual time.  However, we also experience time in a non-linear, ephemeral way: we tell stories about things that happened long ago, or we share the memory of an event with someone or a group of people.  This sort of non-linear time is narrative time, it exists before we are born (mom telling stories of your birth), and it extends beyond our death (your children and grandchildren telling stories of your life).  I would add that we also now experience a digital time, which is linear, but also ephemeral.  In digital time you might meet someone as a child and retain a lose tie to them throughout your life via Facebook or Twitter, picking up conversations here and there over extended periods of time from thousands of miles away when the mood hits you.  As time progresses you collect more and more of these relationships, generating a collage of people, places, and times that overlap, but never touch.

 

How we build relationships changes in this experience of time.  In the world of sensual time you might sit behind the same person in school for six months, or you might work with the person in the cubicle next to you for six years.  These relationships might be intense, or they might be terse, but they are durative for a period of time - they are slow.  In narrative time you might physically experience someone for a very brief amount of time - perhaps someone who pulls you back from crossing the street in front of a bus, or you might never physically meet them but they have impact on you - like your grandfather's decision to marry your grandmother.  These are quick, but impacting relationships that hold some importance in our lives.

 

In the digital realm we have the potential to know people for long periods of time, but only through brief moments of interaction.  Long relationships held together by quick snippets of exposure.  I knew Brian, my former student, for six months when he was in my class, but we had a long relationship of quick moments on Facebook.  Those quick moments were not enough though for me to know that he had become sick enough to die from a fatal disease within six months.  For me this is a profound illustration of why the new hybridization of relationship in the digital realm can augment but not replace the truly important moments of our lives.  I am thankful I had Facebook to keep me connected to Brian and make me aware of what had happened, but I am sorry I didnt know enough to call or try and see him when he was still alive.  Sometimes long relationships need more than the quick comment on a status update, sometimes we need the slow simmer of exposure to each other - face to face - in the sensual space of linear time.

 

The day Hosni Mubarak effectively turned off the internet might have been the moment many Egyptians realized how critical the digital world was to their freedom and potential as citizens of the world, but it did not replace the power that was ultimately only effective when the people gathered together in a community of protest.  As I watch revolution spread across Middle Eastern countries as well as the midwestern state I call home, I am reminded that ignoring the powerful capacity of the digital realm to sustain long relationships in quick time is a potential end-game scenario for leaders.  I am also touched deeply by the power of these new digital spaces to facilitate what Riceour called "the time we take care" - care of ourselves and those we love, whether we've met them yet or not.  However, it is the sensual engagement of each other - conflicted or colloidal - that impresses sustained effort.  In the end, if we want to make long-term change we need more than a Facebook account, we need to reach out and touch each other every once and awhile.

 

 

 

References 

Cohen, N. (2011), Egyptians were Unplugged, and Uncowed. New York TImes online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/business/media/21link.html?_r=2<> , accessed March 1, 2011.

Ricur, P. (2004). Memory, history, forgetting [Mmoire, l'histoire, l'oubli.]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sawchuk, K., Crow, B. A., & Longford, M. (2010). The Wireless Spectrum: The Politics, Practices, and Poetics of Mobile Media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 

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