The communications media fuel the Arab revolutions and thus are reshaping the societies and states that emerge from these uprisings.
McLULHAN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
by Whis Hays
I have yet to hear anyone speculate on how the communications media that fueled the Arab revolutions will reshape and define the societies and states that emerge from these uprisings. For much of the 20th century such thinking was the realm of Roman Catholic layman and media critic Marshall McLuhan (1911-80). Any student of McLuhan’s (mostly proven) theories would know this: sooner or later the structures that emerge will be rooted in the technological extension of senses implicit in these communications technologies.
McLuhan’s landmark 1964 book Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man presented his primary thesis: the dominant communications medium in any society unconsciously shapes our psychic and social lives irrespective of the content presented through that medium. His still-famous dictum was “The medium is the message.” His insights provoke a number of questions about current events in North Africa. How does mobile phone texting extend our natural capacities? How does it fit into the mélange of graphic and typographic communications technologies used in these cultures? What values are embedded implicitly in these technologies and the process of interacting with them? How does this reshape their consciousness and societies?
Often McLuhan’s ideas are stated most succinctly in the provocative subtitles of his chapters. For instance, his chapter “The Photograph” is subtitled “The Brothel Without Walls.” (Note that he got there 30 years before porn introduced e-commerce on a mass scale.) His subtitle for the chapter on “The Printed Word” is “Architect of Nationalism.” What kind of nationalism arises from typographic messages on masses of hand-held screens instead of printed books?
McLuhan’s theory would predict that in parts of the world where typographic messages become the primary means of communication (as in the Arab world), there will be a corresponding drive for nations to be governed by law, not by the whims of dictators, monarchs or religious oligarchies. Furthermore, the inherent nature of texting will also drive things in the direction of national democracies. The medium itself democratizes information. Everyone who has a mobile phone is a publisher/reader. Conspiracies of silence about public events become impossible. The medium is the message, and the political message is participatory government.
These developments are not confined to the political realm: they also carry great implications for the missionary enterprise of the Church. Just as the printing press rendered the Latin Mass intolerably distant and ignited demand for uniformity of common prayer in the language of the people, this technology creates a demand for spontaneous and personal engagement in spiritual life. Sixteenth-century solutions stand no chance of mass replication in such an environment.
While cell phones have saturated the Middle East, it doesn’t stop there. The saturation of this medium extends to most of the world. The BBC reported in mid-2010 that mobile connections have surpassed 5 billion. Even many poor people throughout the world have mobile phones. These devices — mostly simpler than smartphones — are reshaping the global village. If McLuhan was right, this movement will not confine itself to the Arab world, nor to the Muslim world. It will soon shake sub-Saharan Africa and Asian dictatorships in Burma and North Korea.Time has reported that Orascom Telecom “has branched out from Egypt into six other countries (including Algeria, Zimbabwe and North Korea), servicing close to 100 million subscribers.” The Egyptian phone company is inadvertently exporting Egypt’s revolution to North Korea!
Amid all this I’m hoping the United States will have enough sense to stay true to its own democratic ideals. It will be impossible to coax or coerce all the arising new governments to form American-style (or America-friendly) democracies. For instance, Sharia will certainly constitute the legal backbone of the new Arab social orders. Other deep cultural values will dominate in places like Cuba as these grassroots revolutions roll on. But as long as texting dominates, we need not worry that these revolutions won’t really end up as democracies. Just as the movable type printing press drove the rise of the Renaissance and Reformation and the eventual rise of Western democracies, ubiquitous texting on mobile phones will have a similar effect, but with a new individual and immediate twist. Like the orders of Donovan’s “Universal Soldier,” these orders will “come from here and there, and you and me.” But unlike print, viral movements driven by mobile phone texting will boil up with breathtaking speed.
If McLuhan was right — and if I am right about McLuhan — get ready. The geopolitical world is about to be shaken.
Whis Hays is the founder and director emeritus of Rock the World Youth Mission Alliance. This essay is adapted from his weblog.
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