The United States of Silicon Valley

The United States of Silicon Valley

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Editor's Note: By dubbing the upheaval in the Arab world as the "Facebook Revolution,” American media celebrates the reach of American technology and influence. The United States retains its leadership role by championing the "free flow of information." But digital technology conveys content, it doesn't create it. For that we would do better to look to the ancient call to prayer from the Minaret, or the visuals on Al Jazeera.

As crowds riot and the despots of North Africa and the Middle East flee their palaces, Americans find security in the reach of our technology.

Digital technology is relatively new to most of our lives, but the familiar line from the billionaires in Palo Alto and Mountain View has been that they are in the business of conveying content, not in creating content or evaluating content. Digital technology is a conduit.

But from the chaos of the streets in Cairo, an idea dawned—that digital technology, its free flow of content was itself an ideology. The conduit was the content. Thus, did the Egyptian revolution come to be called by American media the “Facebook Revolution.”

Surprisingly, Barack Obama—our first BlackBerry president—was slow to recognize the uses of the new digital nationalism that spread as the desert kingdoms collapsed.

When revolution in Tunisia begat revolution in Egypt, the White House reacted with caution: Some of America’s allies in a dangerous world are tyrants. On the other hand, America has spent American blood, spilled even more Iraqi blood, and $700 billion, in an attempt to bring democracy to Iraq.

For all the brand identification that Washington takes from the word, democracy, Washington is nevertheless shy of admitting that in Gaza democracy means Hamas. Is it possible, therefore, that democracy in Egypt might mean the Muslim Brotherhood? And what does democracy mean in Yemen?

The escape option to the White House’s dilemma came with the celebration of the reach of American technology. The young people in the square are holding up iPhones! The opposition in Bahrain and Libya is transmitting videos of police barbarism to the world via YouTube!

If we could not understand what the crowd was yelling, we could nevertheless see smart phones held aloft like liberty torches against tyranny.

Television and print media latched onto the idea of American (digital) triumphalism before Washington. On U.S. network television news shows (shows that now use Skype and YouTube videos as an alternative to foreign bureaus and camera crews), it was clear that Silicon Valley was on the winning team. The media were literally reading the writing on the wall in the aftermath of the revolution in Tunis. Graffiti read: “Merci Facebook.”

Despite all the optimism Americans might now feel about being in control of the future with the free flow of information, Americans would do well to remember that in many countries (including Egypt) the most important day of protest has been Friday—just after Friday prayers. Islam is content and the ancient call to prayer is stronger than any tweet being transmitted by Twitter.

Within days of Hosni Mubarak’s exit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was transposing Internet freedom from a technical capability into a human right, a right she seemed to want to place under the protection of the United States government. She proposed spending $25 million on an “Internet Freedom Agenda”—to safeguard the Internet from “thugs, hackers, and censors” in countries like Iran and China.

It would have been interesting for Clinton to have added that, for most Americans, the primary way to watch Al Jazeera, the international Arab news network out of Qatar, is to bypass the American cable companies’ boycott of the channel and to find it on the Internet.

Two days after Clinton’s remarks, Obama was on Air Force One, headed to a summit with the avatars of the free digital world in Silicon Valley. (After all the blather about freedom and openness, nothing was more apparent about their dinner than its exclusivity.)

In an interview on NPR last week, Biz Stone, an executive from Twitter, marveled at the reach of his own technology. (I paraphrase.) One can stand in a grocery store in California, connect with someone a world away--“be in the shoes of a protestor in the Middle East.”

That, of course, is precisely what one cannot do. But you can, and this is no small thing, as Stone says, “ask what each other is doing.”

Out of all the hundreds of thousands of protestors in Egypt, the American eye found its recognizing Egyptian in Wael Ghonim, Google’s vice president for marketing in the Middle East. A secular man, who had been imprisoned by Mubarak’s police, he was modest and eloquent in his nationalism in the post-national, global Internet age he otherwise represents.

As reported in Internet chatter, another Google executive in Egypt during the days of turbulence was Jared Cohen. At Google, Cohen carries the Kafkaesque title “Director of Ideas.” Cohen has had affiliations with the U.S. State Department under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. The presence of Cohen in Egypt poses a question: Might he represent some new alliance between Silicon Valley and U.S. government interests?

After the revolutions in the desert nations—nations where crowds are still moved by nationalism and by religion—we Americans could find ourselves in the United States of Silicon Valley, where our technological ability to convey is our only content.