Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Blog

Not long ago (many of us still remember it), we had a certain degree of confidence in our ability to lead a private life. But with the technological evolution of the last few decades, most significantly the development of the internet as a primary tool of communication, any real sense of privacy now seems like a fading memory. Between the decreased costs of surveillance technology, our increased reliance on telecommunications, our common use of GPS systems, our frequent and voluntary posting of personal info, locations, and thoughts on social media, and everyone walking around with camera phones ready to capture every noteworthy moment, life is no longer as loose or anonymous as it once was. People like Anthony Weiner paid a pretty heavy price for pretending otherwise.

While governments have certainly taken advantage of these technological developments to increase their monitoring of their populations (The Onion did brilliant satire of Facebook as a CIA tool), the reverse has also been true: governments are also more transparent to their people. One needn't look beyond Wikileaks, or some random hidden video of abuse by police to see how centers of power and authority feel just as exposed in this post-privacy era.

Days into the Egyptian uprising, the Mubarak regime understood the power of the internet as a tool for organizing and exposure, and they shut it down (to say nothing of the arrest and beating of journalists, including Aljazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin). But they were already too late--the planning and organizing had already been done, and the dramatic and inspiring footage of tens of thousands of people taking to the streets had already been unleashed. Had it been possible to hide the events of January 25th from the public at large, the Egyptian awakening may very well have been delayed indefinitely.   

In Syria, no credible independent media organization is allowed to operate, and foreign journalists are strictly barred. This tactic has been an effective tool in casting doubt over the veracity of any news coming out of Syria, especially with the emergence of fake bloggers and competing and drastically different accounts of various events. But while certain events and details have been successfully obfuscated, the raw pain of demonstrators chanting "we're peaceful" before getting shot by security forces, and the anguish of family members reacting to the killing and maiming of their loved ones before their eyes, is not the kind of thing that any government can control in the Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter age.

There may have been a time when the quiet brutalization of a few people would serve as a terrifying deterrent to continued protests. But when these stories and images are broadcast internationally, they end up eliciting wider solidarity and more fervent resistance. People react differently to repression when they know the world is not oblivious to what they're going through. This is not to pretend that "news" of repression didn't spread before the latest wave of technological development, but we can't overestimate the qualitative difference between, say, print news and statistics on the one hand, and raw Youtube videos of repression on the other.

We are literally years away from being able to reflect on the successes and failures of the Arab Spring. There is no question that major setbacks have been suffered in places like Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. But the story is not done yet. Whatever the ultimate outcome in various countries, the equation that rules the region has forever shifted: governments can no longer act as though the will of their populations doesn't matter. The very technological developments envisioned to be exploited as means of repression have become an instrument of agency and popular resistance to repression.

comments powered by Disqus