Once America had allies. Now it has Facebook friends.
Google News turns up more than 5,000 news reports including the search terms “Facebook,” “Egypt” and “revolution.” The same soap-bubble of global youth culture that gave us the Internet stock bubble in the 1990s has returned, this time as the solution to the problems of the Arab world. With the last bubble, people got poor. This time people will get killed.
As a reality check: the search terms “Egypt,” “revolution” and “genital mutilation” turn up just seven stories in Google News (including a previous essay by this writer). Many Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation, while fewer than 10% of Egyptians use Facebook. Before long we will see whether the “tech-savvy” revolutionaries (172 stories with the qualifier on Google news) are just benzine bubbles floating atop the viscous Nile mud.
Egypt churns out 700,000 university graduates a year qualified to stamp each other’s papers and not much else, and employs perhaps 200,000 of them, mostly in government bureaucracy.
As Egypt’s new Finance Minister Samir Radwan said of the young people who put him in power (to the Financial Times on February 13), “I’m generalizing, but a large number of the Egyptian labor force is unemployable. The products of the education system are unemployable.”
FT reporter Roula Khalaf adds, “The euphoric youth say they ran Tahrir Square so perfectly that they can also manage Egypt – except that their country is a land of 80 million people, 40 per cent of whom live in poverty. By official accounts, 44 per cent of the labor force is illiterate or semi-illiterate.” Google employee Whalid Ghonim, the poster-child for Egypt’s revolution, did not have a job in Egypt, but in Dubai.
Two years’ output of the country’s higher education system will fill Tahrir Square with young people who have nothing else to do. They know the Internet, to be sure; the Internet cafe is the ubiquitous peephole on the great world available to anyone in the global South with a couple of dinars or pesos to spend. One finds Andean Indians in colored blankets and round hats at computer screens in Quito, and kaftaned Senegalese in Dakar. Whether they are voyeurs or participants in the modern world is a different question.
The liberal media now believe that social networking is the great new force in history. A February 14 front-pager in the New York Times effuses:
Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades. They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of non-violent resistance … but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.
The mania didn’t begin in the Middle East. Goldman Sachs invested $450 million in Facebook last month, placing a $50 billion valuation on the enterprise, and JPMorgan reportedly will do the same for Twitter. A dozen years ago, a pair of college dropouts in cutoff jeans could stumble into the oak-paneled offices of venture capital firms and walk out with eight figures’ worth of startup capital. Facebook and Twitter sound like deja vu all over again.
Why should a social networking site have a market capitalization equal to DuPont or Metropolitan Life? It stands as an index of the anomie of the life of young adults in the industrial world, the apartment-and-cubicle dwellers who do not have friends, but only Facebook friends.
One made real friends in the deep past in the army, in church, or other venues that elicit deep loyalties. In the dystopia of youth culture, one encounters drinking buddies rather than comrades-in-arms, and hookup dates rather than romantic involvements. People lead trivial lives – lives, that is, unseasoned by sacrifice, by deep commitment to God, country, or even a prospective spouse.
Social networking elevates the trivial. Young people who have no intimate connection to each other, and no enduring tie to any institution, nonetheless feel a need for human contact. Facebook makes it seem that tiresome pursuit of pleasure, banal tastes, and gossip somehow add up to human interaction.
What is true of the atomized, post-cultural young people of the United States applies in force to the Facebook revolutionaries of Egypt. They are neither secular nor Muslim, neither modern nor traditional, neither enlightened nor backward. They are stuck in a cultural twilight zone, between the traditional world of their cousins who mutilate their daughters’ genitals, and the modern dystopia flickering in colored pixels just beyond their grasps. They have no safe place in Arab society, except in the disembodied cyberworld of social networking.
Removing president Hosni Mubarak was like demanding that Atlas unshoulder his burden. Why is agricultural productivity in Egypt so low? Because a rise in output per farmer would throw tens of millions of farmers off the land, and into Cairo’s pool of 17 million people, most of them utterly destitute. Who will find jobs for the illiterate 40% of Egypt’s workforce, or for that matter, for millions of unemployable university graduates?
As it happens, these essays began with the observation that the premise of the Internet boom was daft to begin with. A week before September 11, 2001, I wrote under the title Internet stocks and the failure of youth culture (Asia Times Online, August 31, 2001):
If Internet stocks were indeed fairly valued, we would have to conclude that the population of the world would have to spend the next century buying pornography, popular music and sundry items online … The collapse of the Internet bubble has broader cultural and political significance: It informs us that the slimy tide of popular culture which spews out of American commercial media and washes over the world will not erode the bedrock of the old cultures that preceded it.
To begin with, “youth culture” is an oxymoron. Youth does not create culture, it inherits it … Why do we have a culture? Why have all the eminently sensible attempts to introduce phonetic orthography into English come to grief? The reason is that we need our past. All cultures worship at the shrine of their ancestors. They exist to ward off the presentiment of death.
“The collapse of Internet stock valuations,” I concluded, “was an early warning that the old cultures would not slip so easily into the blender. The subsequent warnings may be somewhat more emphatic.” The old culture of Egypt – the culture of wife-beating and murder of apostates and female genital mutilation – will not go into the blender, either. A third of Egyptians marry first or second cousins, a pattern similar to most Muslim countries, for the clan is paramount. Hungry and frightened people cling all the more fiercely to the protection they have.
The Facebook friends of Tahrir Square will do nothing more than furrow the mud of Egypt’s traditional society. But they must be good for something. Here’s one idea: have the army draft them all, and send them to the villages to reach reading. The late Shah of Iran created a “Literacy Corps” that allowed any draftee with a high school diploma to perform military service in rural villages as teachers. In one generation, Iran raised its literacy rate to nearly 90%. If the university graduates are unemployable, at least they can do the same. That would really make a difference.