Monday, January 31, 2011

Net-centric Nonsense

Look, I like the Internet. I'm writing on it right now. But the Internet is not essential to communication or to travel, as many news reports out of riot-torn Egypt are insisting.

The Net - and mobile phones, and social networks - are tools, not talismans. They work wonderfully when it comes to speed and connectivity, no question. But to say protestors and foreign travelers trying to flee Egypt's present chaos are helpless in the face of a government-ordered Net shutdown and disruption of mobile phone networks and social media is not true.

Think of it: The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the civil rights movement in the United States, the Prague Velvet Revolution, the protests against the war in Vietnam held around the planet back in the day, the pro-democracy mobilization in Beijing in 1989 - all these and many more were organized by determined activists who didn't have the Internet to help them organize. I'm not aware of Nelson Mandela using an iPad, but he seemed to do alright.

The pro-democracy protestors defying curfew in Cairo are still there, Net or no. Word gets out - through face-to-face conversation, in leaflets, by bullhorns, by people just hanging out, staying up all night, staying put - when people want it badly enough.

Travelers, understandably anxious to get themselves and loved ones out of harm's way, are not suffering at Cairo International Airport chiefly because they can't use airline Web sites or handheld devices to book flights out - there are barely any flights out. Airlines, also understandably, aren't willing to brave the worst of the crisis in the teeth of violence and so much uncertainty. My heart goes out to the people who are stranded; I wouldn't want to be there in those conditions. But Net-centric explanations don't explain very much.

In the meantime, news reports say the Egyptian Army has secured the precious Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, to protect it from looting and other destruction; some relatively minor breakage has, alas, taken place. Tourist access to the Giza Pyramids is shut off. The government has ordered domestic trains to a halt. Some private trucking companies are keeping their vehicles off the road, and this is choking food supplies.

Having visited Cairo in 2009 and 2008, I have seen local people carrying around big rolls of (usually) small bills. I can attest to the importance of cash in Egyptian life. It is not a credit-card society. The biggest problem now is that ATMS are down and banks are closed. That - and the scarcity of transport - are much more vexing problems than the digital disruption now ripping through Mubarak's crumbling kingdom.

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