Reading the literature on social media and the Arab Spring, there’s a recurring sentiment I’ve run across:
- Jeff Neumann: Social Media Didn’t Oust Tunisia’s President — The Tunisian People Did
“Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.”– Achalla Venu: What happened in Tunisia and then in Egypt?
“So the common trait between the revolution in Tunisia and the ongoing revolution in Egypt is — they all are human revolutions not caused by Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, Flickr and many others but they all played their part.”– Jillian York: Not Twitter, Not Wikileaks: A Human Revolution
“I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight. But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”
Despite their affirmation of the importance of social media during the uprisings, these authors (and many others) want to assure us that their analysis remains appropriately human-centered, that they are not making the terrible mistake of describing tools as if they had some sort of agency.
But here’s the funny thing—we describe our tools as having agency all the time. This isn’t a mistake, or an accident. It’s an essential part of our expressive repertoire around technology.
Consider, as an example plucked from the communal corpus just now, the Henckels 8-Inch Bread knife, as reviewed on Amazon…
Very nice knife, cuts the bread without any effort and looks good doing it.
…or this, also googled up an instant ago, from the story of ships operated by the Furness Bermuda Cruise Line…
During the 1920s, Forts Hamilton, Victoria and St George carried the
Now you might expect the people worried about tools and agency to be all over stuff like this: “The knife cuts the bread?! Humans cut the bread, thank you very much. And ships carrying passengers? What’s this, Thomas The Yacht Engine?”
But try re-writing the sentence about the ships, maybe something like “During the 1920s, people who wanted passage to Bermuda were transported on the Forts Hamilton, Victoria and St George“? You could write it that way, but you wouldn’t; the sentence doesn’t just bloat, it stops being about the ships, which was the whole point of writing that sentence in the first place.
Furthermore, no one is confused by the first version. No one accuses the authors of the above-quoted sentences of making ontological commitments to talking ships or enchanted knives. And yet, if you claim (as seems to be plausible enough to discuss) that weblogs were useful to the Kefeya movement in Egypt in ways that no other tool could replicate, or that camera-phones were useful during the Pearl Roundabout protests in ways that phones without cameras weren’t, people get (really) worked up about those claims, on the grounds that anyone talking about whether technology made an important difference during the uprisings must also be making the hidden claim that technology caused those uprisings.
Curiously, this anxiety doesn’t seem to pervade other, related disciplines. I’m pretty sure the “Revolution in Military Affairs” people are happy to take human goals on the battlefield as a given, and can then debate the effect of longbows at Agincourt or Panzers in the Ardennes without worrying that this dishonors the dead.
Some of this may be about the newness of the Arab Spring, but agency anxiety seems to attach to communications tools more generally—in The Social Life of MediaPeter Burke and Asa Briggs attack Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, specifically on the grounds that her reference to agency is inappropriate.
And yet, despite their commitment to keeping agency firmly lodged in the human, even Messrs. Burke and Briggs end up concluding (a little glumly, to my eye) that:
…in thinking about the way in which printed matter encouraged political consciousness, while a more acute political consciousness led in turn to a rise in the consumption of printed matter, it is difficult to avoid a phrase like ‘the logic of print’ (pg. 88)
Every day, we happily occupy a linguistic world where guns kill people and alcohol makes them drunk. Those sentiments and a billion more could be re-written along the lines York proposes—“It wasn’t a brandy hangover, it was a human hangover”—but, whatever else such re-writes might do, they won’t increase the descriptive utility of the altered sentences.
Indeed, people complain about the phrase ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ precisely because that formulation makes it hard to talk about technology. People kill people, but they do a lot more of it when given handguns, just as people testify to atrocities by the state, but they do it better when they have phones with cameras in them, and better still when TV networks broadcast those images using satellites instead of terrestrial antennae.
You don’t have to go all the way to Actor-Network Theory or What Technology Wants to see that if we’re going to talk about what newer media tools may have made possible during the recent uprisings, that’s going to involve talking about weblogs and camera-phones the way we talk about knives and ships. And, following Burke and Briggs, it will be difficult, in that conversation, to avoid phrases like ‘the logic of camera-phones.’
What puzzles me is why we should want to avoid those phrases in the first place. What is it about communications tools that seems to arouse more anxiety about our usual, agency-encapsulating shorthand than other kinds of technologies?