Being Connected: Class and Cosmopolitanism in Cairo
I spent part of last week in Qatar with a brilliant group of scholars, discussing digital media in the Middle East.
Each of us offered a 10-15 minute general introduction to our assigned topic, followed by 45 minutes of discussion and commentary.
My own topic was “Being Connected: Class and Cosmopolitanism in Egypt.” My introduction was as follows:
The title I was assigned for this discussion is apparently drawn from the title of my book, so let me start with issues of digital media raised by that work.
My primary work in Egypt focused on the ways children grew up constructing identities in which they could be at once Egyptian and Arab and at the same time modern and global (that combining these identities is problematic in their social imaginations reveals much about the cultural system through which such identities are authenticated and authorized).
And the strategies children and their families found all had to do with creating connections between the local and various external locations from which goods, and ideas and images flow. Since access to these flows is differentially distributed, cosmopolitanism becomes a way inflecting class (also age, gender, education, and other distinctions but these, too, were bound up with class).
So when I initially thought about digital media and connectedness, it was within this framework of practices and discourses in which connectedness is itself a sign of class, and modernity and other sorts of identities.
In thinking about digital technologies, then, I think that we need to attend to the fact that they are not only practical devices that serve functions but semiotic devices that mean things in particular local contexts and which are wrapped up in statuses and identities.
My thinking on this topic was broadened and deepened by the Egyptian uprisings in 2011. I have the four points I want to make derive from these reflections, and conversations about these reflections with Egyptians and with other scholars studying the Egyptian revolution.
I want to suggest that as we consider digital media, connectedness and cosmopolitan identity in Egypt and the region, we need to attend to four things:
- First, the nature of mediated experience
- Second, media ideologies.
- Third, the capacity of widely distributed infrastructures and ideologies to impact local digital practices.
- And fourth, the need to attend to contingency
Both as a former journalist and as an ethnographer, I find it easiest to illustrate things with stories so I will briefly offer some stories to explain what I mean by each of these.
Also, I should emphasize in what follows that I do not find it easy to make clear distinctions between old and new media, or digital and analog media but rather see complex media ecologies everywhere, but since this point has been previously raised I won’t belabor it here.
1. Mediated Experience. The first thing that the revolution has forced me to think very carefully about is the nature of mediated experience.
I have a friend and former student who was part of the revolution. Having seen the protests on television over several days, he went to the midan with two friends on Feb. 2, just in time to be caught in the Battle of the Camels.
Returning home slightly injured, he was told by his mother and sisters that he had no right to risk his life since he was the only adult male to head the family. Therefore, instead of returning to Tahrir Square with his friends, Tamer took on a leadership role in the neighborhood popular committee, which had taken on the job of securing the area in the absence of police.
Some evenings, Tamer spoke about events with his friends, who did return to Tahrir several times. He also followed events on Al-Jazeera and Dream TV, and argued in favor of the uprising with neighbors who were following events on state television, which framed the uprisings as a dangerous disruption of Egyptian stability and security inspired by foreign agents. Tamer also followed the tweets of some former American University in Cairo (AUC) friends who were in the midan, and watched the video clips to which the tweets referred him.
Tamer’s sisters and mother also lay claim to being part of the revolution, although none of them ever took part in a public protest. Indeed, tens of millions of Egyptians never participated in a public protest but experienced the revolution through some mix of consumption of state and independent mediated narratives of events, social media (and especially mobile telephony), face-to-face communication with protesters, and so forth.
So what is meant by “participation” in a world of digital media?
2. Media Ideologies. In his book Revolution 2.0, Wael Ghoneim makes extraordinary claims about the liberating capacities of digital technologies. By contrast, Hossam El-Hamalawy insists that digital technologies are just one tool among many in the arsenal of the revolutionary, and that one exploits what tools it can. Both revolutionaries are making claims about what media is, and using those claims to justify approaches to how it can and should be used.
By media ideologies, then, I mean sets of beliefs people have about media articulated by media users as rationalizations and justifications of the ways they use with media, and which discursively link media to group and personal identity (“shebab al-Facebook”), to aesthetics, to morality, and to epistemology.
Attention to media ideologies can help us deal with tendencies toward utopianism and dystopianism, which are themselves just such ideologies. This could also help us address the complex issue of newness, of continuities and discontinuities between digital media and other forms of media–many of which involve digital technologies but are not recognized as digital media.
3. Global constraints. To what extent are the creative, subversive and, perhaps, liberating uses of social media and Web 2.0 projects constrained or limited by ideologies and embedded practices inherent in the design and operation of those sites?
I’ve already told the story of piggipedia, and its curtailment by flickr’s notions of intellectual property. There are many other examples of creative repurposing of digital media for local, often revolutionary purposes, that are forestalled by design and advertising and other decisions made thousands of miles away for reasons having nothing to do with those Egyptian purposes, and I think this is an important issue that almost no one has addressed.
4. Contingencies. Finally, I think we need to find ways to attend to the ongoing contingencies inherent in studying new media.
I followed the uprisings as they unfolded primarily through social media. And my records reveal that many people who supported the initial protests were willing to say by the 29th when Mubarak sacked the cabinet, or Feb. 1st, when he pledged not to run for a sixth term, or Feb. 3rd, after Suleiman’s speech, that they had accomplished enough.
I have an e-mail from a professor of literature at Ain Shams who went to Tahrir January 26th and 27th and by the 29th was arguing that the protests had been hijacked by people with political agendas and the protesters should go home and wait for the reforms their actions would engender.
Other protesters had high hopes and ambitions but became demoralized at certain points and were willing to stop, only to be regalvanized by such events as news of fresh protests in Alexandria or Ismailia, or by Wael Ghonim’s Feb. 7 television interview.
The variety of opinions circulating in blogs and Tweets and e-mails and text messages about why people were there, what they could seriously hope to accomplish and they were risking, not only personally but in terms of the nation, was broad, and variable.
The unity of Tahrir Square was a negotiated unity, one continually being argued, debated and re-assessed in the light of shifting events. It was only after the celebrations of Mubarak’s resignation that a simple framing of the 18 days as a clash between the regime and a rainbow cross-section of Egyptians from all walks of life unified by their opposition to the president becomes a single dominant narrative.
So contingency or indeterminacy, that is, how to describe and analyze a process as it is unfolding, is an enormous problem.
And in another dimension, the media we are writing about, and the practices in which they are embedded, are continually changing.
After the revolution, there were a large number of experiments to creat online graffiti archives, online Tahrir civic engagement sites, online martyr reverence sites, tweetnadwas, and so forth, most of which failed, and attention to the rise and fall of such processes is missing.
So the question is how we write descriptive and analytical texts which are situated in a specific time and place, but which are sensitive to the contingencies of the past and the recognition that the moments we are describing, the situated knowledge we are producing is drawn from situations that will be changed by the time people read them.