Causes are Always Multiple

David Parry bio photo By David Parry


Again, this time in the case of Tunisia, we have the rise of the “(insert Internet technology) Revolution” meme. And already it seems that I have read at least 10,000 words penned (typed) in defense of thesis that a specific internet technology (Wikileaks, Twitter, Facebook) caused the Tunisian uprising and as least as many words arguing the negative, that these internet services had nothing to do with the events in Tunisia. At least when compared though to prior “social media revolutions” narratives (“Iran Twitter Revolution” or “Moldova Twitter Revolution”) critics seemed far more aware that reducing a revolution to one particular piece of social software simplifies a complex story. Indeed on balance, as I suggested, I think I saw equal analysis on both sides of the “social media as revolution enhancer” argument. Journalists reporting on the situation seemed less likely to immediately embrace the notion that Twitter or Facebook had caused the uprising.

The notion of causality here is the important one, and as Zeynep Tufekci argues what one means by causality in this case goes a long way to explaining how one approaches the problem. Tufekci invokes Aristotle here to argue that social media was a material cause, that is, it was a medium in which the revolution played out. This does not mean it was a final cause, but simply part of the equation.

I think this is correct, and a useful way to look at the problem, although I have my reasons to doubt Aristotle’s framework (see “The Question Concerning Technology”) this at least points us in the right direction. That is, many people are asking did Twitter etc. cause the uprising in Tunisia, when any analysis adequate to the task would not ask this question, but rather more fine grained ones. The fact that we ask this question illustrates several problems with our current technological analysis/critique.

First, it demonstrates a consistent bias towards technological fetishism. That is, when an event occurs we look to place causality on a technological explanation, look for the tool which enabled the event rather than place causality in some other realm. As Evgeny Morozov argues in The Net Delusion, there is a history, particularly beginning with the Cold War of associating social change with technological linear causality. Political uprisings are caused by samizdat, Xerox machines, or faxes, when the actuality of those events is far more nuanced. And this fetishism seems always to me related to a certain focus on the “new” as if only new technology is a contributing factor. No one speaks now of a “money revolution” despite the fact that Iranians passed currency inscribed with revolutionary messages. Or, perhaps in the case of Tunisia no one seemed to argue that it was a “fire” revolution, despite fire being a key piece of technology in the narrative (one of the events which sparked the uprising was Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation). And finally, it seems to me pretty clear that this kind of technologically based linear causality betrays a certain cultural bias, if not outright racism, whereby one group claims a certain measured superiority over another: the idea that without a technology developed here in the west Iranians or Tunisians were incapable of having a revolution.

Second, this type of technology based criticism/analysis ends up conflating the various and different technologies associated with the internet, asking if social media caused a revolution, without demonstrating any specific engagement with those technologies. Asking, “Did Twitter contribute to the revolution?” is an entirely different question, than, “Did Facebook contribute to the revolution or was this a Wikileaks revolution?” It is entirely plausible that one of these technologies had no effect, while another was important. As subsequent analysis has shown, Tweets about the revolution spiked only during the final hours leading up to Ben Ali’s flight and following the announcement that he had left Tunisia. The story with Facebook though seems far more complex. And indeed any final analysis might show that certain technologies inhibited the uprising, while others fostered the protesters aims.

Finally, and most importantly searching for singular causes is a misinformed approach. Again as compared to writings on prior “Twitter Revolutions” it seems that critics and journalists have come around to this position, at least in the case of social media. The question is not, did social media technology cause the Tunisian revolution, but rather how did a specific social media technology contribute or inhibit the revolution. Ultimately these are going to be impossible questions to definitively answer, but I think we can at least try to answer this question from an arrange of disciplinary approaches. Asking did a specific technology cause an event is to reproduce what I referred to earlier as “billiard ball causality,” (borrowed from Proveti) the idea that events are linear, and causes and effects are singularly understandable. But if the net teaches us anything it is that events are networked together, and that causes and effects are always multiple nuanced and complex in their interactions. (Asking if Twitter caused a revolution is a bit again like asking if the political rhetoric caused the Giffords shooting, the real question is in what way did it contribute/not contribute.) Searching for linear causality might be comforting, but it is always wrong and reductive.

There is a larger problem here with seeking explanations in linear causality, connected to the first issue of techno fetishism, for in asking about the linear causality of a particular technology we end up falling into the trap of either being techno-determinists, or the reverse mistake of assuming that we are unaffected by our tools, wholly in control of the technology, unaffected by its uptake. As techno-determinists would have it, humans are determined by the technology that they use, social problems can be engineered away by technological design. For a techno-determinist it is all to easy to find the explanation to an event in a technological cause, history being determined by technology. But the opposite side is equally as reductive choosing to believe that humans are fully in control of the technology itself, that it is merely a tool to be used for good or ill, and what matters is the using of the tool. Neither position is adequate to the task of analysis, although unfortunately one of these two positions seems to underly most critique of social media. The truth is that humans and technology are codeterminte, or day I say networked together. It is impossible to talk about what it means to be human without also talking about technology, trying to analyze one side of the equation without the other is reductive. (Call this a chicken, egg problem. Neither came first, you have to have both to know that the other means.)

Humans are technological creatures, and the technological milieu in which we operate clearly changes the way we act. Having a printing press changes the sociality of the groups with access to this technology, having an internet connection also changes the sociality of a group. (And even changes how legacy media produce/re-produce sociality.) Would the Tunisian uprising have occurred without Facebook? I think again this is an impossible question to answer, and also perhaps a less than nuanced one. The better question is in what ways did Facebook affect the events in Tunisia? And I think when we start to ask that question, it starts to become pretty clear that certainly Facebook played a role, as this article points out, the number of people in Tunisia on Facebook rose dramatically during the revolution, but more broadly, and more importantly the very existence of social media changed the social relations of the people in Tunisia. That is prior to any uprising, the fact that people had access to social media (particularly Facebook) means that the type of “public sphere” they had was drastically different than it was before the citizens had access to the digital network.

Social media change (dramatically) our social structure, to then assume that this would also not change how revolutions (which are after all large scale social affairs) play out, is to ignore the change wrought by the digital network. This is not to argue that social media have a universal positive effect, I remain skeptical on this front, as it is just as likely that in some social uprisings social media might have a decidedly negative effect (either from the standpoint of enhancing state oppression or breeding complacency on the side of the disgruntled-clicktivism). We need to begin by realizing that these causalities are always multiple, that indeed social media have changed our social structure, and that while we can effect some of these changes, the outcomes are not fully up to us.

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