The Internet bubble in Middle East politics
Once America had allies. Now it has Facebook friends.
Google News turns up more than 5,000 news reports including the search terms
"Facebook", "Egypt" and "revolution". The same soap-bubble of global youth
culture that gave us the Internet stock bubble in the 1990s has returned, this
time as the solution to the problems of the Arab world. With the last bubble,
people got poor. This time people will get killed.
As a reality check: the search terms "Egypt", "revolution" and "genital
mutilation" turn up just seven stories in Google News
(including a previous essay by this writer). Many Egyptian women suffer genital
mutilation, while fewer than 10% of Egyptians use Facebook. Before long we will
see whether the "tech-savvy" revolutionaries (172 stories with the qualifier on
Google news) are just benzine bubbles floating atop the viscous Nile mud.
Egypt churns out 700,000 university graduates a year qualified to stamp each
other's papers and not much else, and employs perhaps 200,000 of them, mostly
in government bureaucracy.
As Egypt's new Finance Minister Samir Radwan said of the young people who put
him in power (to the Financial Times on February 13), "I'm generalizing, but a
large number of the Egyptian labor force is unemployable. The products of the
education system are unemployable."
FT reporter Roula Khalaf adds, "The euphoric youth say they ran Tahrir Square
so perfectly that they can also manage Egypt - except that their country is a
land of 80 million people, 40 per cent of whom live in poverty. By official
accounts, 44 per cent of the labor force is illiterate or semi-illiterate."
Google employee Whalid Ghonim, the poster-child for Egypt's revolution, did not
have a job in Egypt, but in Dubai.
Two years' output of the country's higher education system will fill Tahrir
Square with young people who have nothing else to do. They know the Internet,
to be sure; the Internet cafe is the ubiquitous peephole on the great world
available to anyone in the global South with a couple of dinars or pesos to
spend. One finds Andean Indians in colored blankets and round hats at computer
screens in Quito, and kaftaned Senegalese in Dakar. Whether they are voyeurs or
participants in the modern world is a different question.
The liberal media now believe that social networking is the great new force in
history. A February 14 front-pager in the New York Times effuses:
Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade
surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to
stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades. They fused their secular
expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements
and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons.
Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied
on tactics of non-violent resistance ... but also on marketing tactics borrowed
from Silicon Valley.
The mania didn't begin in the Middle East.
Goldman Sachs invested $450 million in Facebook last month, placing a $50
billion valuation on the enterprise, and JPMorgan reportedly will do the same
for Twitter. A dozen years ago, a pair of college dropouts in cutoff jeans
could stumble into the oak-paneled offices of venture capital firms and walk
out with eight figures' worth of startup capital. Facebook and Twitter sound
like deja vu all over again.
Why should a social networking site have a market capitalization equal to
DuPont or Metropolitan Life? It stands as an index of the anomie of the life of
young adults in the industrial world, the apartment-and-cubicle dwellers who do
not have friends, but only Facebook friends.
One made real friends in the deep past in the army, in church, or other venues
that elicit deep loyalties. In the dystopia of youth culture, one encounters
drinking buddies rather than comrades-in-arms, and hookup dates rather than
romantic involvements. People lead trivial lives - lives, that is, unseasoned
by sacrifice, by deep commitment to God, country, or even a prospective spouse.
Social networking elevates the trivial. Young people who have no intimate
connection to each other, and no enduring tie to any institution, nonetheless
feel a need for human contact. Facebook makes it seem that tiresome pursuit of
pleasure, banal tastes, and gossip somehow add up to human interaction.
What is true of the atomized, post-cultural young people of the United States
applies in force to the Facebook revolutionaries of Egypt. They are neither
secular nor Muslim, neither modern nor traditional, neither enlightened nor
backward. They are stuck in a cultural twilight zone, between the traditional
world of their cousins who mutilate their daughters' genitals, and the modern
dystopia flickering in colored pixels just beyond their grasps. They have no
safe place in Arab society, except in the disembodied cyberworld of social
Removing president Hosni Mubarak was like demanding that Atlas unshoulder his
burden. Why is agricultural productivity in Egypt so low? Because a rise in
output per farmer would throw tens of millions of farmers off the land, and
into Cairo's pool of 17 million people, most of them utterly destitute. Who
will find jobs for the illiterate 40% of Egypt's workforce, or for that matter,
for millions of unemployable university graduates?
As it happens, these essays began with the observation that the premise of the
Internet boom was daft to begin with. A week before September 11, 2001, I wrote
under the title Internet stocks and the failure of youth culture (Asia Times
Online, August 31, 2001):
If Internet stocks were indeed fairly valued,
we would have to conclude that the population of the world would have to spend
the next century buying pornography, popular music and sundry items online ...
The collapse of the Internet bubble has broader cultural and political
significance: It informs us that the slimy tide of popular culture which spews
out of American commercial media and washes over the world will not erode the
bedrock of the old cultures that preceded it.
To begin with, "youth culture" is an oxymoron. Youth does not create culture,
it inherits it ... Why do we have a culture? Why have all the eminently
sensible attempts to introduce phonetic orthography into English come to grief?
The reason is that we need our past. All cultures worship at the shrine of
their ancestors. They exist to ward off the presentiment of death.
"The collapse of Internet stock valuations," I concluded, "was an early warning
that the old cultures would not slip so easily into the blender. The subsequent
warnings may be somewhat more emphatic." The old culture of Egypt - the culture
of wife-beating and murder of apostates and female genital mutilation - will
not go into the blender, either. A third of Egyptians marry first or second
cousins, a pattern similar to most Muslim countries, for the clan is paramount.
Hungry and frightened people cling all the more fiercely to the protection they
The Facebook friends of Tahrir Square will do nothing more than furrow the mud
of Egypt's traditional society. But they must be good for something. Here's one
idea: have the army draft them all, and send them to the villages to reach
reading. The late Shah of Iran created a "Literacy Corps" that allowed any
draftee with a high school diploma to perform military service in rural
villages as teachers. In one generation, Iran raised its literacy rate to
nearly 90%. If the university graduates are unemployable, at least they can do
the same. That would really make a difference.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this article in
Spengler's Expat Bar
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