I sat down with Yale history professor Paul Kennedy to hear the historical view on the impact of New Media on the current string of uprisings in the Middle East. Rather than directing the conversation through a typical schedule of specific questions, I opened up the floor to Professor Kennedy. I asked him what he thought his extensive knowledge of history could bring a unique perspective. The following is a paraphrased version of our hour long conversation (I contribute my own connections to recent events in the last two paragraphs):
Not surprisingly, the long view of world history provides us with past examples of innovations in communications technology that have led to similarly drastic effects on the political landscape. The conversation quickly turned to the Gutenberg Revolution, the “new media” revolution of early Europe, which came about from the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg.
The first book printed by this new technology was the bible. Formerly written in Latin, this text had been inaccessible to all but the most educated elites. Monks interpreted the word of God for the masses and derived power from their exclusive access to this text that informed the lives of the common people. The bible’s translation into vernacular language and the ease with which it could now be printed and circulated, led the printing press to radical alter the social and political landscape of Europe. New interpretations of the sacred text led to questioning of Church’s traditional authority and Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolution.
A new social class was created that laid the groundwork for the modern day media: the printer class. With their new-found power to quickly disseminate common-language texts to the literate masses, the printer class didn’t stop at the bible. They began a decentralized circulation of political texts in the form of pamphlets, newsletters, satires, manifestos and the like with profound consequences. The rapid widening of access to radical ideas unfiltered by the established authorities led to massive political uprisings like the English Civil War and the French Revolution. It also created new fault lines between the educated, literate classes and less-educated, illiterate masses.
However, ideas of inevitable change—like those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto—were proven wrong as opposition formed to the freedom of information: (1) authoritarian regimes adapted to the changing environment by creating new policies to control information flow, and (2) opposing camps moved to quash the spread of ideas they found disagreeable. Instead of an unstoppable move away from authoritarian rule, new coalitions formed and fought to determine the outcome of the altered political environment. As the French Revolution unfolded, many echoed the sentiment of English poet William Wordworth who commented optimistically that, “Blissful was it in that dawn to be alive.” But skeptics like philosopher Edmund Burke—who wisely predicted that, though many might rejoice while watching the early days of a revolution, those same people might come to regret the final outcome—were proven right in the end.
This initial euphoria is echoed in the current uprisings in the Middle East, as many celebrate the seemingly inevitable change from autocratic rule to democracy. But we must keep in mind our history and be wary of rapid change facilitated by sudden increases in access to information. Even recent history gives us clear examples that a democratic form of government doesn’t guarantee a state friendly to the West. Just five years ago in 2006, Hamas–the terrorist organization turned political organization–won freely held parliamentary elections. We must not forget our history (don’t forget Lebanon and Iran!). And who knows how Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out?
While the world looks on optimistically at the changes in the Middle East, skeptics worry that the ousted regimes may end up the looking like the lesser of two evils. Some fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will sweep into power in Egypt, which has a vast majority of less-educated, more traditionally minded populace (unlike the educated, younger, urban population that spearheaded the protests that brought Mubarak down). Many of these younger, politically-active people opposed the constitutional referendum (while the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party supported it) for fear that a quick election would not allow time for new political parties to solidify and stand a chance against the old order. Though a move toward democracy is certainly a positive step, we must not forget the long history of revolutions that have been sparked on lofty ideals, but eventually turn to something quite different from what we might have expected.