Sunday, 5 February 2012

Communication Today And How It's Everywhere

The fact that a Facebook event led to the uprising of the January 25th Egyptian revolution made me realize how powerful today’s communication has become and developed in me a growing hunger to learn more. I re-joined University for a Communications Certificate which led me to later apply for a Master’s degree in Communication & Culture. Upon graduating in 2000, the internet was a completely different experience than the amazing heights we have reached by now. It was already up and running for several years but I still had to go to the library and search in card catalogs hoping that the books I was looking for were not checked out. Since then, communication has dramatically advanced with all the social media, phone cameras, live feeds and the vast amount of information and knowledge constantly being uploaded online. An infinite variety of materials are just a few clicks away to be found and shared. I believe that history-telling nowadays is undergoing dramatic change and we owe it to ourselves and to humanity to take an active part in the mission of leaving the best accounts for our descendants to learn from. Communication became so tech savvy that it leaves me wondering how it will affect every aspect of our lives in the next 50 years and beyond.

Before the fall of the 30-year-old autocratic regime, the Egyptian government unplugged its nation for 5 days; mobile phones and internet were shut down in a desperate effort to contain the growing demonstrations. The decision was very unorthodox for 2011, let alone the moral aspect of it, but again it shows how much stronger people are when connected and how fearful armed governments are from that simple, yet very strong union that communication creates. Moreover, the police themselves didn’t think that after 4 long days of heavy duty battles, their walkie-talkies batteries will eventually die out and they wouldn’t be able to communicate through mobile phones as they would have usually done, and were forced to retreat. The whole “police state” system collapsed and choked itself to death and again, communication proved its victory.

For 18 days, international journalists such as Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and others were assaulted by pro Mubarak forces while covering the unfolding events in Cairo. True and unbiased media is the eye of the public and if you are doing something wrong, the last thing you want is to have cameras around to document the crimes. Luckily for history’s sake, cameras are already everywhere and millions of Terabytes are here to stay in our limitless cyber libraries. The pen and the camera are indeed mightier than the sword.

Interestingly enough, Facebook users have increased in Egypt by 29% during the 2 months following Jan 25th compared to 12 % at a similar period in 2010, according to The Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School Of Government. So the main impact of blocking the Internet was actually a positive one for the social movements as it pushed people to be more active, decisive and to find ways to be more creative about communicating and organizing. I later ventured to make my own miniature study and reached out to 110 contacts and a staggering 84% said “yes” to using Facebook and Twitter for news.

Almost one year later and in the midst of an ongoing revolution, the police and army forces stormed into buildings surrounding Tahrir Square one night, destroying and confiscating all cameras they could find. Some news networks have rented flats with balconies overlooking the square where most demonstrations are taking place and have their cameras already mounted on top. One hour later, the forces brutally attacked the protesters in the square with shotguns and internationally-banned neuro-toxic gas. Understandably, their “cut all communications” tactics were starting to sound too unworldly and barbaric, even for an 8 year old and are always ending with leaked information and shameful failures. Just a few hours later, different videos of the attack were uploaded on YouTube by some residents of the area. You really have to be a fool to believe that you can deny the people's right of communicating when simply most of today’s mobile phones are equipped with video cameras.

During more recent events and in a true display of ceaseless betterment, they were many live feeds from the "front lines" battles around Tahrir Square that I could watch from all the way in Toronto, Canada. I would sometimes view 3 different camera angles through 3 different live feeds at the same time. In minutes, viewers around the world - mostly Egyptian expats- reach thousands as soon as the link is shared on social media between its different groups, pages and friends and with a chatting features for people to connect even more. Every time between the gun shots and the ambulance sirens, I could hear the young men broadcasting say: "Share, share, please share everyone so that everyone sees what they are doing to us."

Again I remember those World War I and II documentaries and how it must have been for the soldier photographers and videographers to set their tripod somewhere in the snow, just to get a few minutes footage of their marching army, and how complicated it must have been to combine them all in documentary films that take decades to be shared with the world. Now, you're filming the action with a hand held phone connected to the internet and broadcasting live to the world wide web. Not only that, but the material is saved forever and can be later viewed, reviewed, studied and analyzed. I see tomorrow's historians and researchers in front of huge "projected screens" watching our today's lives  and wondering how and why did we do this to ourselves and to humanity.

On a parallel note, all recent occupy movements in North America and around the world that were inspired by the Arab spring chiefly used Social media to organize demonstrations, disseminate information and to raise awareness of ongoing events. There was a live feed on the 1st day of Occupy TO on October 15th and cameras remained the common weapon between the peaceful protesters. Remote followers were updated through online social networks with posts including video clips and photos, and an overall and sincere sense of connection was dominating. The police themselves were seen with at least one camera in every Occupy protest, but that’s a different story!

There is an undeniable vital role for communication in the world we live in today and media, culture, politics and technology are all gracefully intertwined. Instead of embracing the change, most people resist it from fear of the unknown, while it has been proven throughout history that it is indeed part of our human evolution. We may not all see the future but our children will, and it's our job to help them make something of it.

"The only constant thing in life is change"
- Albert Einstein

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