Writing to the Moment

If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them the internet.”
Wael Ghonim, Egyptian pro-democracy Internet activist and Google marketing executive

In his article, Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition, Charles Tryon says he titled his first course in which he encouraged his students to read and write blogs “Writing to the Moment.” Tryon quotes Richard Ohmann (2003: 124) in suggesting that “…higher education and schooling in general serve a democratic society by nourishing hearty citizenship.”

Currently, there is probably no better example of “writing to the moment” than the use of the Internet by the revolutionary movements in North Africa and the Middle East. Although social media like Facebook and Twitter have played a more central role in organizing protests, blogs also play a part in the expression of revolutionary sentiment throughout the region.

It is impossible not to feel the breeze of the winds of change sweeping through the Arab World today.  Mesmerized by the news, and totally awestricken by the sheer fact that fear is gone; we the people of this region have finally reclaimed our long muted voice.” –From: http://www.7iber.com/

Ghonim, who through the use of Facebook helped organize the revolution that overthrew Hosney Mubarak in Egypt, said in an interview with CNN, “If you want to have a free society, just give them the internet.” But can the Internet just be “given” to a country? And can it in all cases be used freely as a tool for freedom?

In actuality, it is up to those who control political power in a dictatorship as to whether or how much access to the Internet will be “given.” As Sarah Lovenheim has written in the Washington Post, “Besides their authoritarian systems, China and Egypt share some similarities when it comes to Internet use. About one-third of each nation’s population uses the Web. (That’s 450 million people in China, and nearly 27 million people in Egypt.) But one striking difference is that Internet freedom has been much greater in Egypt, and democracy advocates have made use of it.”

In a CNN Interview, Evgeny Morozov author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” says that “People who are concerned about freedom and democracy and creating democratic values abroad…are far better off assuming the Internet will strengthen dictators. It doesn’t matter whether it will strengthen them more or less than the protesters. But by assuming that the Internet does help the bad guys, we by default adopt a far more critical attitude, for example, to Western companies that supply technologies of censorship and surveillance in these governments.”

It was lucky for the Egyptian revolutionaries that their government was so inept at censoring and controlling content. According to Morozov, who is a visiting scholar scholar at Stanford, countries like Iran, Russia, and China are much more sophisticated in their control of access and content. As Lovenheim writes in her article, content containing the words “Egypt” and “Cairo” have disappeared from the Internet in China.

According to Morozov, “…the governments we were hoping to oppose [are] becoming much smarter about the web. They [are] doing things that [are] much more sophisticated than [we] could ever expect. We thought they would just be banning websites, but they [are] actually doing things like doing data mining of social networking profiles and launching cyberattacks, and it [becomes] clear that these governments are very active consumers of these tools themselves.”

The best way to ensure our freedom of expression is to engage in it actively. In America, where freedom of speech and political assembly are thought to be guaranteed rights, a good way to engage students’ social participation can be to encourage active blogging. A good place to start is with reading blogs written by people who are fighting for their own rights and freedom.

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Revolution 2.0 as distributed collaboration:

Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of contribution…Perhaps the most famous example of distributed collaboration today is Wikipedia, the collaboratively created encyclopedia that has become one of the most visited websites in the world.”
Clay Shirkey, Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production

“This is revolution 2.0. No one was a hero. No one one was a hero. Because everyone was a hero. Everyone has done something. We all use Wikipedia. If you think of the concept of Wikipedia where everyone is collaborating on content. And at the end of the day you’ve built the largest encyclopedia in the world. From just an idea that sounded crazy you have the largest encyclopedia in the world. And in the Egyptian revolution, the revolution 2.0, everyone has contributed something–small or big, they contributed something–to bring us one of the most inspiring stories in the history of mankind when it comes to revolutions.”
Wael Ghonim in his March 6th TED Address


4 comments on “Writing to the Moment

  1. Richard, you bring up an interesting point about how important blogs and wikis were in the revolution in Egypt. I take it that you are arguing that blog use in the U.S. will lead to social change as well. Should we, as compositionists, aim for that when we set up blog assignments for our students? How do we even do this? Does the nature of blog use determine whether it has social value? If a student blogs about airbrushing in beauty magazines, does that negate the value of blogs? These are all interesting questions. For me, blog use in of itself has value in it no matter the subject matter. It allows for a way of thinking of the world that is needed in today’s globalized society.

    • Good questions. To clarify, my focus here is on Tryon’s idea of “Writing to the Moment” and how one purpose of education is to teach about democracy and citizenship. This entails, by extension, aspects of critical thinking, reading, and writing that are, at least to some degree, embodied in the teaching of English Composition. Following the IRW model–integrating reading as a crucial part of the writing process–I see the revolutionary movements in North Africa and the Middle East as being of great interest as topics for reading and writing. America’s founding principles–and one could say revolutionary spirit–are still relevant to our culture and to many people throughout the world. What better way to reflect, analyze, compare, and contrast fundamental principles like freedom, democracy, citizenship, critical thinking, and freedom of expression than to use this “teachable moment” of revolution that is sweeping many countries, especially as it also resonates with other large topics which have dominated our lives for many years: Islam, war, tolerance, peaceful coexistence, multi-culturalism, globalism, and Internet communication.

  2. I am quite certain that blog use has led to , and will continue leading to social change in the U.S., but I am not sure what kind of change that has been, or will be. The U.S. is not Egypt, which is not to say that we are not oppressed by our ruling class, as Egyptians are. Our government is just a lot smarter about the way in which it oppresses us, and the means by which it oppresses us, that is, by giving us the right to vote, yet making sure that we are fed all the right media so that we will make fear-based choices at the voting booth that do not serve our own best interests, but rather, prevent any type of “other” from gaining any sort of advantage that they do not “deserve”, or have not “earned”. I am not sure how or if blogs can liberate us in the same way that they liberated Egypt, or if the Egyptians really are going to be “liberated” in the end. I guess what I’m saying is that the oppression over here is a lot murkier, since we do it to ourselves, or at least a good measure of it. Also, we are pretty comfy, relatively speaking. We have luxury problems, for the most part. That is, we can;t afford enough of it…I’m not sure we can compare ourselves to Egypt in any way that is directly useful…as you nodded to in your discussion of airbrushed advertisements.

    • …But that word luxury is fraught, I know. I mean, is education a luxury? Is healthcare a luzury? I think they used to be, but they are slowly becoming the standard. The question of what is standard and what is luxury is ont that any society must negotiate.

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