Internet, logic, and the Middle East

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I am going to use this space to bellyache, I hope concisely, about the presumptuousness of all those information-age enthusiasts who are haling the current revolutionary developments in Yemen and Egypt as evidence of

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I am going to use this space to bellyache, I hope concisely, about the presumptuousness of all those information-age enthusiasts who are haling the current revolutionary developments in Yemen and Egypt as evidence of the transformative power of internet communication.

Put quickly and bluntly, they are foisting bad logic on a susceptible press and public, in service of an unrealistic social vision that really has little to do with what is actually going on with the frustrated young people in those countries, or with the real capabilities of communication technology.

The claim they are making is that the internet, and particularly the social media like Twitter and Facebook, are of seminal importance in the political revolutions we are currently seeing in the news; and that those revolutions are harbingers of further political revolutions, as the “democratization” of information inevitably brings about the democratization of the social order in the Middle East.

This is just hippy-dippy poppycock.

While I am not about to deny that digital communication is a hugely important development in social history, I am unconvinced that the technology implies anything about a “better world a-comin’,” or a flourishing of justice, or democracy.

Many of the claims being made for the internet as an agent of social justice and peace between nations were made about a century and a half ago for the telegraph: It, too, was supposed to create a world of instantaneous communication that would promote social cohesion and world understanding.

What the telegraph accomplished most effectively, it turns out, was to allow imperial powers to more effectively enforce their will on subject nations, and ultimately to enable the mobilization and deployment of enormous armies in the First World War to pound the bejesus out of each other.

Communications technologies can play an important role in the carrying-out of social revolutions, but they are not the causes of those revolutions in and of themselves; nor is their effect necessarily always benign.

Furthermore, there have been a number of large scale political revolutions within recent memory that have had nothing to do with any advances in communication technology.

The more common cause of those revolutions, in fact, has been the presence of lots of young people with lots of education and few opportunities in life, combined with aging, corrupt totalitarian regimes with a long history of failing their youth.

The collapse of the Communist regimes and the fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance, had nothing much to do with any new form of communication technology – and certainly not with the internet, which was still an obscure plaything for academics and lonely computer nerds, back in 1989.

Certainly, Western communication technology – particularly the two-deck cassette tape machine, which allowed for underground dubbing of Western rock music – had an important effect on shaping the social attitudes and expectations of young people on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

That is the reason a rebellious artist like Frank Zappa, only marginally famous in the West, was so culturally important in the then-Communist Czechoslovakia that he ended up being appointed as a special ambassador for the country after its liberating Velvet Revolution.

At the same time, however, that same piece of technology – the two-deck cassette player – was instrumental in fostering the socially repressive Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Iran in 1979; and Iran was at that time yet another country full of young, educated people left frustrated and futureless under a brain-weary, corrupt totalitarian regime.

Communication technology can indeed be enormously important in generating social change, but there is no logical concomitant that the change involved is going to be inherently democratizing.

What the internet millenarians need, really, is some instruction in elementary logic: The distinction between necessary, sufficient, and contributing causes.

The logical error the internet enthusiasts are propagating is that communications technology (at least now that it has become internet technology) is a necessary cause of freedom and democracy, or at least a sufficient cause of those things.

A cause is “necessary” when it alone can produce a given effect: Birth is a necessary cause of death, since you can’t die without being born.

A cause is “sufficient” when it is one of several causes which can produce a given effect, either alone or in combination: The bad smell in the room might be a wet dog, some wet socks or a wet dog wearing wet socks.

A cause is “contributory” when it has an impact on the nature or character of an effect, without being directly responsible for the existence of the effect itself: The thump of a drum is caused by a drumstick; the loudness of the thump is caused by the “contributory” cause of the velocity of the drumstick.

The logical error the internet enthusiasts are propagating, then, is that communications technology (at least now that it has become internet technology) is a necessary cause of freedom and democracy, or at least a sufficient cause of those things.

Historical experience, I would argue, has already shown that proposition is wildly unrealistic.

A more plausible cause for the democratization is the presence of a large number of disgruntled and educated youth, who have ideals and ambitions thwarted by an antiquated, autocratic regime.

At best, modern communications technology is likely to function only as a contributing cause to whatever socially transformative effects take place in the authoritarian countries of the Middle East; and just how that technology will impact the nature of those social effects, for good or ill, remains to be known.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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