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February 17, 2016

Oculus Time Shift: Virtual Reality in the 1850s

From On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt, by On Barak (Univ. of California Press, 2013):

Dioramas were given their definitive form by Louis Daguerre, the inventor of photography, in the early 1820s. They consisted of massive, realistic landscape paintings, suspended from a theater ceiling and moving in sequence on a wire, with shifting light effects projected from behind. Alternatively, pictures might be stationed around a revolving platform.

Throughout the 1850s, after the diorama of the Overland Mail debuted in London, various other dioramas and panoramas showcased Egypt. “The Great Moving Panorama of the Nile” had been exhibited in England over 2,500 times by 1852. The new photographic “Cairo Panorama” debuted in 1859. In 1860 “London to Hong Kong in Two Hours” took spectators to the Far East via Egypt along the Overland Route.

…A typical description, taken from a review of the 1847 “City of Cairo Panorama,” reveals how Eurocentrism was performed in these spectacles: “The visitor standing on the circular platform is in the very center of the locality represented, as real to the eye as if he were on the spot itself. (Kindle Locations 789-802)

BTW, Barak’s book is about the history of the difference between the Western colonists’ view of time and the local Egyptian understanding:

…means of transportation and communication did not drive social synchronization and standardized timekeeping, as social scientists conventionally argue. Rather, they promoted what I call “countertempos” predicated on discomfort with the time of the clock and a disdain for dehumanizing European standards of efficiency, linearity, and punctuality. (Kindle locations 209-212)

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November 27, 2011

Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: A report from Egypt

Here is an email Nagla Rizk sent to the Berkman mailing list. I’m posting it with her permission.

When we stormed the streets last January, we chanted “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”). We knew exactly what we wanted: a better livelihood for all. At the time, Egypt was experiencing high rates of economic “growth”, a superficial sign of positive economic performance that did not trickle down to the masses. Part corruption part inaction, a 4-5% (or even the earlier 7%) growth rate was by itself meaningless as it did nothing to alleviate poverty or ease the merciless income inequality.

Equally serious was the iron grip on freedom of expression. In a typical Arab regime manner, Egypt focused on encouraging economic freedoms in the strictest neoclassical sense, while simultaneously continuing to harshly stifle political freedoms. Not surprisingly, Egypt fared relatively well on indices of doing business, while performed dismally on democracy and freedom indices.

The January chant, therefore, was a fierce cry against this asymmetry. More deeply, it was a cry for real development, one encompassing freedom of expression coupled with poverty alleviation and better income distribution. The cry of the masses reflected a street awareness of the complexity of development as human dignity and active citizenry — an enlightenment that the ruling elite lacked.

Ten months down the road, yesterday we chanted in Tahrir, “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”). Why?

Bread and Social Justice:

No one expected bread and social justice right away. People wanted a roadmap, a plan, a timeline. They got none. Naturally, what emerged was a series of demonstrations and strikes by employees and workers whose demands were never acknowledged, let alone addressed. Rather than tackling the root of the problem or starting a dialogue with the protesters, SCAF chose to order them to go home. To add insult to injury, SCAF and its government portrayed them as the cause of instability, turning the rest of Egypt against them. Dividing Egyptians has been a repeated tactic by SCAF, supported by state media.

Meanwhile, the economy has suffered gravely. Tourism and foreign investments have been the obvious casualties. Egypt’s net foreign reserves have fallen from $36 billion in 2010 to $22 billion, its credit rating has been downgraded, prices continue to rise and the budget deficit to swell. The stock exchange has plummeted. The central bank has just announced it raised interest rates for the first time since 2009 to protect local deposits and the Egyptian pound. The rise in the cost of borrowing would lead to further contraction in the economy. As the state of street safety worsens thanks to SCAF’s incompetence, the economy continues to weaken.

Aggravating the situation has been the perception of the business class as allies of the old regime. This has put all members of the business community in one pot: the corrupt. The anti capitalist rhetoric (global really) has fed into calls for tighter regulation of the private sector within a general anti business environment. In addition to scaring away potential investors, the sad news is that several entrepreneurs and small business owners have closed down and workers have been laid off, compounding unemployment. Hardly any support would be expected from an incredibly weak government whose ministers are too scared to sign into backing businesses lest they should be seen as favoring the ‘corrupt’.

Egypt’s economy is in trouble. And as SCAF prolongs the transitional period, further instability is witnessed and foreseen.


The political atmosphere under SCAF is no different from Mubarak’s. Indeed, we are still under Mubarak’s emergency law of 30 years. So far, 12,000 civilians have been subjected to military trials. Currently our good friend Alaa AbdelFattah, the prominent activist and blogger, is detained by SCAF for refusing to answer as a civilian to a military tribunal. SCAF and Egypt’s police continue to torture detainees. Egyptian women detained by SCAF were subjected to virginity tests.

SCAF have also carried out unprecedented attacks on media, specifically attacking the premises of two television stations, both documented on video. SCAF have also exerted pressure on media content. Recently a prominent TV person withdrew his popular show in protest against SCAF’s pressure. And of course state media has continued to deliver false messages in support of SCAF.

On March 19, we excitedly participated in a referendum on 9 constitutional amendments to the 1971 constitution. The amendments were accepted by a 77% majority. Right after, SCAF dictatorially issued a constitutional declaration with 63 articles including the amendments with some editorial changes. This nulled the old constitution. Article 56 of the declaration gave SCAF their legitimacy as rulers of Egypt. This was not subject to a referendum.

On October 9, we wept witnessing the Maspero massacre, where SCAF vehicles brutally run down street protesters in scenes that moved the whole world. SCAF’s attempt to justify this act as carried out by civilians who stole military vehicles is laughable. If true (which it is not), such claim would illustrate the utter failure of SCAF to maintain security on the street. Additionally, attempts by SCAF and State TV to portray Maspero as a sectarian strife is another example of how SCAF labors to fuel divisions among Egyptians. No less is SCAF’s maneuvers to flirt with different political factions – first the Muslim Brotherhood and later the ‘liberal’ parties.

And now last week’s incidents in Tahrir and elsewhere in Egypt, particularly Mohamed Mahmoud Street. We have all witnessed footage of the atrocities of police officers shooting at Egyptians. SCAF representative and Minister of Interior have come out denying any shooting. This is an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence, no less than all SCAF crimes being investigated by committees assigned by SCAF themselves.

In short, we have a clear failure of SCAF to lead the political transition and to allow for proper management of the economy by an independent government. SCAF has ruled with an iron fist, with a very weak government in place. A mix of political naivite and the desire to protect own interests (they are a major recipient of US aid and a major economic player), SCAF’s amateur performance has brought to disarray the politics and economics of a very complex country.


As I write, Egyptians are divided yet again, thanks to SCAF’s insistence amidst this chaos to run elections on Monday and not two weeks later. Some want to boycott the elections. Among them are those who believe that voting will give SCAF legitimacy, which they refuse. Others believe their votes will be rigged in favor of SCAF’s interests. A third group is simply worried about the lack of security at the voting stations.

Boycotting the elections would be a grave mistake in my opinion. For the first time in years, we have a chance to choose representatives who would take us one step towards building a democratic state. It is our chance on the road to freedom.

The atmosphere in Egypt is now grim. Elections are around the corner while our people continue to be subjected to police brutality. Yesterday SCAF appointed a new prime minister who is refused on the street. Tahrir is coming up with an alternative. As I write now, a statement is being read on TV: revolutionary forces met with El Baradei who is willing to head a national salvation government if asked to do so by SCAF. And he would give up the nomination for presidency. No one knows what will happen in the next hour.

In the meantime, we continue to defy, mourn and hope. One thing we know: we should not again be storming out calling for bread, freedom and social justice.

Nagla Rizk
November 26th, 2011
11.42 pm


February 14, 2011

The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way

Jay Rosen has a great post, full of links (because Jay practices what he preaches about transparency) on the popular article that keeps getting written that argues that Twitter does not topple dictators. By the time Jay is done exposing the predictable pattern those bogus articles take, you will not be able to take them seriously ever again. For which we should thank Prof. Rosen.

One extremely fruitful place the conversation can move to is Zeynep Tufecki’s fabulous post on why leaderless networks tend to develop leaders. “Preferential attachment” just tends to have that outcome, as much for political leaders as for bloggers (as per Clay Shirky’s famous “power law” argument). Zeynep writes, for instance:

It is not enough for the network to start out as relatively flat and it is not enough for the current high-influence people to wish it to remain flat, and it is certainly not enough to assume that widespread use of social media will somehow automatically support and sustain flat and diffuse networks.

On the contrary, influence in the online world can actually spontaneously exhibit even sharper all-or-nothing dynamics compared to the offline world, with everything below a certain threshold becoming increasingly weaker while those who first manage to cross the threshold becoming widely popular.

Zeynep’s analysis and presentation are brilliant. I come out of it only wondering if the almost-inevitable clustering around particular nodes is an indicator of leadership, and, if so, how much that itself changes the nature of leadership. That is, the fact that Wael Ghonim and Mohamed El-Baradei are likely to gain many, many Twitter followers, and to loom large in Web link maps makes them important social media personalities. But Ashton Kutcher by that measure is also important. Kutcher (because there is a God who loves us) is not a leader. But Ghonim and El-Baradei are. This seems to me to be a very different sense of leadership, indicating a serious change in the mechanics and semantics of leadership.


[The next day:] Paul Hartzog responds, criticizing Zeynep’s assumptions for presenting “one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.”


February 11, 2011

Freedom for Egypt: Some tweets, a thought about a future of journalism, and a question about networked leadership

This is such a miraculous day for our sisters and brothers in Egypt. As an American, a father, a Jew, and a fellow human being, I am overwhelmed with happiness for you and what you have so courageously accomplished.

A couple of tweets:

@MOHAMMEDFAS: words of joy will be everywhere only thoes who have oppressed this day will speachless!!

@peterglaser: Heute fängt das 21. Jahrhundert an – nicht am 11. September [The 21st century starts here, not on 9/11]

I learned a lot from Paul Amar’s article that tries to lay out Egypt’s power structure and political landscape. Of course, I cannot evaluate its accuracy. (I heard about it from a tweet by Matthew Stoller.

Andy Carvin [twitter:acarvin] is one of the faces of the future of journalism. He curated and retweeted thousands of tweets, a stream that gave better continuous coverage than was available on any of the broadcast channels. His retweeting of messages from the ground, from other Twitterers, from the mainstream media gave us a Channel of One. Andy’s stream was transparent — he was on the side of the protestors, duh (and, btw, CNN certainly gave up any pretense of objectivity on that score)— and imbued with his personality and his sense of humor.

Sure, Andy’s twitter stream was not a sufficient source of information, but what was? And sure, tweets are only 140 characters long, but they can include links to longer pieces.

Andy became a central part of the media ecology for many of us. While Andy is unique, the role he played is replicable. Smart media companies will be out looking for their own Andy Carvins. Even so, most will get it wrong, because they will assume that being inside a media company helps. I’m not sure that it does, although being paid by a media company certainly must.

(Some people (including me) have made donations to their local NPR stations to support Andy’s efforts. You can donate here. If you do, how about tweeting it with the hashtag #gave4andy so the the motive for your donation will be clear?)

(Later that day: Nieman Lab has an excellent post on the gave4Andy meme.)

A question: We’re going to be arguing forever about the role and importance of social media in the Egyptian revolution, but I want to ask a smaller question: Would the Egyptian Revolution been leaderless without the presence of social media?

I ask this as a genuine question. And I understand that I don’t know how leaderless it was.


February 4, 2011

Gladwell proves too much

Malcolm Gladwell is going further out on his cranky branch. His reading of the role of social media in Tunisia and Egypt actually seems to lead to conclusions that I think he would acknowledge are extreme and extremely unlikely. (I look at his new post in some detail after the big box below.)

Gladwell is in the unfortunate position of having published a New Yorker article dismissive of the effect of social media on social protest movements just weeks before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. Now Gladwell has posted a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to Gladwell’s latest post.)

I was among the many who replied to Gladwell’s initial article. I began that piece by trying to outline Gladwell’s argument, in a neutral and fair way. This is what I came up with:

In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”

Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.

But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.

Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.

But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.

Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”

As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Now apply that to Tunisia and Egypt. You would think that these were pretty dramatic counter-examples. Gladwell does not think so. In fact, his recent post reads as if he’s exasperated that anyone is still bothering to disagree with him:

But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.

Even the fact the post is only 200 words long gives the impression that the two Mideast upheavals are barely worth his time.

Let’s look at each of the post’s two paragraphs.

Paragraph #1. This is a paragraph of ridicule: Paying attention to social media is like hearing a famous revolutionary statement from Mao Zedong, paying scant attention to its content and import, and instead getting all excited because of the medium he used.

Yes, it is possible to pay too much attention to the medium as opposed to the message. But, as with so many arguments by ridicule, this one doesn’t advance our thought at all. We can counter by trying to make the analogy more exact: If in 1935 Mao had said “Power springs from the barrel of a gun,” and it had spread through, say, a new-fangled telephone tree so that it reached beyond the boundaries of government-controlled radio, and if that statement had signaled a turn to violent uprising, it would be irresponsible to ignore the role of the medium in the dissemination of the message. Or, if government printers had in the 1960s refused to publish the Little Red Book that spread that quote, the lack of a medium for it would surely be worth discussing. Media play an important role. When the medium is new, it is right to examine that role. That is not to say that the medium is a sufficient cause, or is the only thing worth discussing. But who has attributed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings solely to the existence of social media?

Gladwell’s argument in this first paragraph therefore seems to me to be: (1) Ultimately an argument against media having any role or significance in political movements; (2) An argument against a strawman; (3) Less an argument at all than a “Hey you kids, get off my lawn” statement of alignment.

Paragraph #2. Gladwell reiterates his point that political activism requires strong ties, and social media only provides weak ties. He defends these contentions by using the word “surely,” which almost always indicates that the speaker has no evidence to present that could in fact make us sure: “But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

It is not at all obvious that this is the least interesting fact. Social media are a new variable. Because history is so damn particular, contingent, and emergent, we can never be entirely sure which new variables matter. The anti-Mubarak demonstrations have been (apparently) heavily supported by Egypt’s trade unions, for example; perhaps that’s worth exploring. Declaring the possible role of social media the “least interesting fact” seems based either on an a priori belief that (a) media never have an important role in social movements, or (b) our new social media can have no role because of Gladwell’s theory that they can’t supply the strong ties necessary for activism. The first alternative seems too silly to defend. If it’s the second, then I would have thought a reasonable response from Gladwell would have been along these lines: “I’ve put forward a bold hypothesis about the ineffectiveness of social media. That hypothesis is based primarily on some historical examples. We have some new examples before us. Let us examine them to see if they indeed support my hypothesis — especially since so many have claimed that this new evidence refutes that hypothesis.” Instead we get all the power a confidently rendered “surely” can bring.

But the second paragraph is not over. Gladwell now gives examples of historical revolutions that succeeded before the development of the Net. The conclusion warranted from this evidence is that no particular medium is necessary for a revolution: We know you can have a revolution without, say, telephones because we’ve had many such revolutions. But this is a really bad way to argue about historical explanations. Many wars have ended without any atomic bombs being used, so we might as well say that historians ought not to consider the effect dropping a-bombs had on ending WWII. No, if we want to understand an event, we have to understand it within its history. The events in Tunisia and Egypt are occurring within a history in which social media are being used for among the first times. That makes the question of the role of social media interesting, and, under most theories of history — ones in which the nature of the contemporary media plays a contributing part — important.

Gladwell’s second paragraph therefore “proves” too much. But he backs off the obvious silliness of where his arguments lead by concluding: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.” He thus proposes a sort of historical determinism: No matter what the means of communication, those who want a revolution will have a revolution. But: (1) How do we know this is true? (2) The means of communication may well affect (a) when it happens, (b) how it happens, (c) who participates, (d) its success, (e) how the world reacts, and (f) how the participants view themselves as a social group. That last point I acknowledge is the squishiest of them, but it may have the most lasting effect, helping to shape the governmental structure that emerges post-revolution: “We are a mob inspired by the incredible leaders who have the megaphones” might tend toward differences in governance than “We are a connected, empowered network.” In any case, it seems to me that investigating the role of social media is not an activity beneath contempt.

And that’s why I’ve written a post ten times longer than the one it’s discussing. Gladwell — with his amazing ability to illuminate difficult matters — is not merely splashing cold water on an overheated subject, but is trying to drown the subject entirely. Because we don’t yet understand the effect social media are having on social movements, it is unhelpful to have such a powerful voice ridiculing the effort to trace their effects. Gladwell’s attempt to undo unwarranted enthusiasm comes across instead as an argument for diminished nuance. That is exactly what Gladwell is decrying in our discourse, and is not what his body of writing has exemplified.

So, I come out of his brief post wondering how Gladwell would answer the following questions:

1. Does Gladwell believe that the means of communication never has any effect on any social protest movement? (“…in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.”)

2. If he believes that the means of communication can have some effect, then does he believe that some media that do not create strong ties — radio, newspapers, tv, etc. — are worth considering when trying to understand social protest movements? If so, then why are networked social media not worth considering?

3. If social media are worth considering as playing some role in social protests, exactly what role and how important? A role so trivial that it is literally the least interesting factor historians and analysts should be looking at? Or is it of more importance than that, but just not anywhere near worth the amount of attention it’s been getting?

4. On what does he base these views? A theory about how social protest movements have worked and must work? Does he hold this theory as so obviously true that all events must now be interpreted within it, or is he willing to examine events to see if they support or contradict his theory?


February 1, 2011

What crowdsourcing looks like

Watch volunteers jump into and around the Google spreadsheet that’s coordinating the transcribing and translating of Egyptian voice-to-tweet msgs. Not exactly a Jerry Bruckheimer video, but the awesomeness of what we’re seeing crept up on me. (Check the link to the hi-rez version after you’ve read the TheNextWeb post; otherwise you can’t really see what’s going on.)


January 29, 2011

Religions of the Mideast

I know everyone except me has this down cold, but here’s a handy map of the religions of the Middle East, provided by Columbia University.

map of religions of the mideast

Click on the image to see the full map


December 9, 2010

How the Egyptians multiplied

The title refers to The Maths, people! Get your minds out of the gutter for once, will you? Jeez!


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