As someone who has spent the past year interviewing youth organizers in the Arab world about their use of new media, I was heartened by the role of on-the-ground reporting in your Arab Spring coverage (“Streetbook,” September/October 2011). What it omitted, however, was the strikingly different role that social media play after momentous political uprisings. Before an uprising, new technologies provide public spheres in repressive political environments, allowing more like-minded citizens to connect. They also accelerate crowd formation. Yet these benefits run the risk of turning into liabilities after the crowd has formed. When structures for mobilization lack a single leader, it is more difficult to come to consensus about next steps. And the more quickly a crowd gathers, the less likely it is to evolve into a sustained organization after it disperses. Egypt’s most well-known youth movement, April 6th, is currently grappling with all of these challenges. As I discovered through conversations with its leadership, one Facebook page is no longer sufficient for it to engage with the much broader audience that it must now reach.
As one of the earliest entrants to the Irish blogosphere in 2002, I found powerful resonances in “Streetbook” with our experiences in post-conflict Northern Ireland. John Pollock faces down cyber critics by showing that social media did not make these revolutions but, rather, enabled citizens to connect. But what role might these technologies play post-conflict? Our conflict came to an official end in August 1994, just as the Web was gaining critical mass. If the making of a revolution is drama, punctuated with tragedies too numerous to count, making peace is long-form prose requiring iterations of conversation between people who profoundly disagree about almost everything. For my part, I began the independent politics website Slugger O’Toole as an attempt to explain the complexities of Northern Ireland over a long period of time. Any successful rebuilding of an Arab demos must likewise start with modest aims. “Streetbook” tells us that the new digital tools will not be about building virtual ghettos but about engaging people who are trying to solve problems obscured by social oppression and conflict. And it requires commitment to the long haul.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Why not look at the cloud as a giant video rental service or public library rather than something that will cause us to lose our rights (“A Cloud over Ownership,” September/October 2011)? People have borrowed books for eons without feeling the need to “possess” them. I don’t need to own copies of most of the media I enjoy. I read a book once and then must find somewhere to put it. I watch a rented movie and am happy to return it. I disagree that putting things in the cloud makes us more likely to lose them. It’s extraordinarily easy to make copies of digital media and have them on multiple hard drives and servers or in cloud storage, making the loss of any one copy irrelevant. Backing up digital copies is surely far easier than protecting, cataloguing, insuring, and carting around a thousand pounds of physical books and discs.
There are a number of reasons why owning something can be better than renting it. For instance, I don’t care if HarperCollins goes out of business: I bought the book, it’s on my shelf, and I can refer to it whenever I want. The nice thing about owning a book or movie is that if you’re strapped for cash, you can still go back to it. With rented content, it is quite possible to lose access to it. The point of ownership is to have unlimited and unrestricted access to a thing.
CAPACITY FOR CATASTROPHE
I found the July/August 2011 issue both encouraging and maddening. “The Problem with Waiting for Catastrophes” and the Q&A with Nicholas Stern nicely make the point that the real issue with climate change is one of good old-fashioned risk management. Yet despite your thoughtful analysis, the Stern interviewer concludes his piece by asking, about the prospect of investing 1 percent of GDP to forestall ecosystem meltdown, “Can we afford it?” In a country that thinks nothing of spending roughly the same amount on consumer electronics, it is nothing less than immoral to even acknowledge that as a legitimate question.
Sunapee, New Hampshire
Correction: David Hockney’s collages Pearblossom Hwy. and Luncheon at the British Embassy, Tokyo, Feb. 16, 1983 were made with Kodak film, not Polaroid (“The Mind’s Eye,” September/October).
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