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Theorizing Twitter Revolutions: Part 1 There’s no such thing as technology

February 6, 2011

Having been reading Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion on my recent travels and getting home in time for the Egyptian upheaval I thought that I’d just throw in a couple of comments about ‘Twitter revolutions’ and ‘Facebook uprisings’ etc. I’ll post part 2 tomorrow morning.

The psychologist Kurt Lewin made the comment that ‘there’s nothing more practical than a good theory’ and of course Keynes observed that ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’  My thought here is that in trying to make sense of what Twitter, Facebook, SMS etc have done in Egypt it’s useful to flag up the way that thinking about these questions have been developing in Science and Technology Studies.

One of the basic thrusts of science and technology studies over the past couple of decades is that on close inspection the society/technology distinction doesn’t hold up. ‘Technologies’ have been conceptualized as systems that mix material and ideational elements in social practices. Bruno Latour has developed a particularly radical take on this and argues that precisely what distinguishes humans is that they have always and everywhere co-evolved with their technologies hence trying to define ‘the human’, ‘the social’ and ‘the technological’ as distinct essences is mistaken and just gets in the way of understanding what is going on. This has been parodied as the view that ‘things are people too’ – but as an example of this mode of thinking take how people in modern societies deal with time. There is a universal system of abstract time measurement, we carry watches – which we could set for any time we like but don’t – we have been inculcated with a sense of time management through the way that this abstract system of time is embedded in everyday practices like how long a university class is. Time needs clocks, people, ideas, collective practices mixed together. For this reason Latour and others of a similar ilk prefer to talk about ‘actor-networks’ or ‘technosocial assemblages’. The take away from this is that ‘technologies’ are never just technologies they are actor-networks that may or may not grow to involve more components (including people).

The point here is any attempt to set up an opposition between technological and social explanations of the upheaval in Egypt is ontologically flawed. All revolutions have a ‘technological’ or ‘media’ component but at the same time they all are ‘social’ phenomena. In the case of Egypt the question is more about the emergence of actor-networks that were in part at least constituted around ‘technologies’ . If we recognize that ‘technologies’ are not ‘objective’ ‘autonomous’ entities but are co-constructed by their users we are taking a big step away from naive technological determinism and towards an understanding of the possibilities and limits of ‘technologically’ driven change.

Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Morozov, E. (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Allen Lane.

Tomorrow: Part 2 A short summary of social movement theory.

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