Oops! A milestone came and went without note, but this post marks the 3,004th rant or rave in this blog since mid-2003.
Dumbos, who salivate at pointing to the racially-based incompetence of the POTUS 44, have been howling at the Middle Eastern moon because a competent POTUS (like The Dubster POTUS 43) would have foreseen the looming threat from the Arab world. The Dubster depended upon the CIA and, it would appear that the POTUS 44 has made the same error. Leave it to a pointy-headed professor to suggest a better source of prognostication for the nation's leaders. If this is (fair & balanced) chutzpah, so be it.
[x The Cronk Review]
The Scholar As Futurologist
By Carlin Romano
Tag Cloud of the following article
In Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab street achieved its immediate goal. In Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, the dictators responded with bullets and worse. And in the media, a subtale of presidential frustration surfaced quickly.
President Obama, a variety of stories reported, felt stymied by the quality of political intelligence he'd received. Why didn't he know these regimes were threatened or imminently going under? According to The New York Times—apparently based on leaks meant to counter earlier intimations of a benighted administration—Obama had ordered up a classified report last August from his advisers, a so-called secret Presidential Study Directive, about unrest in the Arab world.
It informed him, the Times story reported, that the Arab world was indeed ripe for popular revolt—at some point, in one country or another—in the absence of sweeping political reform.
The report was, the Times explained, citing unnamed administration sources, a whole 18 pages. And, um, it hadn't been formally submitted yet. And, uh, to be perfectly honest, it was "still a work in progress."
Excuse me, but this sounds a lot like an overdue term paper, not to mention a group project. Did the president give his advisers an extension? Was the Professor-in-Chief planning to grade it? And what do we think about running U.S. foreign policy off an 18-page draft? Was it at least single-spaced? A top Mideast scholar could barely clear his throat and get through acknowledgments in that narrow ambit.
The president might have asked one of those unnamed sources to shoot over to Barnes & Noble to see what the store offered. The advance man—or woman—might have noticed the presciently titled Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, by Tarek Osman (2011). It reports that Egypt's political system "has descended to frightening levels of coercion, oppression, and cruelty," that younger Egyptians teem with a sense of "confusion, resentment, and rejection," and that "the active opposition" to the Mubarak regime, which had seen a "significant dilution" of its legitimacy, posed "perilous ramifications" for it.
Not bad for 2010.
Or, more recently, the scholarship scout would have spotted Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011). In it, the 26-year-old native of Belarus, a visiting scholar at Stanford, and Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that state security services use the Internet and cybertools such as Twitter as effectively as, or more so than, young dissenters and would-be democratic revolutionaries.
True, Mubarak's brief attempt to unplug the Net didn't save him. But in Iran, where the Revolutionary Guard controls the nation's main Internet provider, the regime used social-media sites and Facebook pages during the aborted Green Revolution of 2009 to identify opponents, post their photos, solicit denunciations, and trace connections to Western supporters, thus enabling the government to blame foreigners for stirring up all the trouble. As a result, the Revolution turned out not to be a revolution. The idea that the Internet inevitably spreads democracy is, Morozov contends, just a new species of cyberutopianism.
We don't usually stop every few months to ask whether scholars are getting the world right. But when they are, as seems to be the case with Osman and Morozov, it raises questions.
Should the CIA director, Leon Panetta, be replaced by the director of a university press? Panetta admitted in recent Congressional testimony that the CIA needs to do a better job of identifying "triggers" for uprisings in places like Egypt. Osman writes that "there are real triggers for chaos in Egyptian society today, as I have demonstrated throughout this book." So why not the scholar as futurologist? Maybe specialists published by serious presses prove the best predictors of what will be in our complicated international world.
Egypt on the Brink and The Net Delusion both suggest that.
Osman, an Egyptian educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University, in Milan, delivers textured historical context for breaking events in Egypt, the kind of backward-looking overview we expect from scholars. It's comforting to know that "King Ahmose, effectively the founder of ancient Egypt's New Kingdom, described his pharaonic mandate as 'maintaining order (maat) and averting chaos (isfet).'" The more things change....
At the same time, Osman impresses with his prediction that, in a post-Mubarak Egypt, the likeliest presidential candidates from outside the regime and military would be Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the ex-director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moussa quickly announced his resignation from the league in anticipation of running. ElBaradei was chosen by a number of opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to represent them in negotiations with the regime, and is also expected to run. Granted, some of Osman's statements, such as that "any planning at the top of the Egyptian hierarchy for the period post-President Mubarak is shrouded in mystery," hardly deserve a prognostication prize. But following discussion of how the Egyptian business community co-opted power from the military in recent years, he focuses analysis more accurately than most current pundits by asking, "Is the military establishment willing to hand over the grasp on authority it has enjoyed for the past six decades to the liberal capitalist elite?," and then trying to answer the question.
One after another, his observations about "staggering inequality," "rising anger on the Egyptian street," the "deafening calls for change," the "excruciating" conditions of "the country's poor," point to what happened in Egypt in February. "The pressures and resistance of society," Osman writes, "suggest that the regime's tactics—whether of containment, coercion, or confrontation—are reaching a limit." The regime, he notes, "seems to be isolating itself, relying more heavily on the security apparatuses." In his view, "the regime is potentially close to a tipping point after which it could lose control of the increasingly unstable situation."
And, unlike an 18-page paper, Egypt on the Brink explains why.
Morozov, in turn, exhibits savviness on his subject that equals Osman's on Egypt while adding snappy prose. The Internet, he charges, "excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better" that "they endow [it] with nearly magical qualities." They make it "the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries.... It's like Radio Free Europe on steroids."
On the contrary, explains Morozov. Authoritarian states increasingly use keyword filtering, URL monitoring, and other surveillance techniques to tip the scales against opponents. Rejecting the "excessive optimism and empty McKinsey-speak" of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's January 2010 speech in which she exalted the power of "Internet freedom," he broadly criticizes both cyberutopianism and what he calls "Internet-centrism," the idea that everything important about modern life revolves around the Internet. Put those two attitudes together and you have his title phenomenon: The Net Delusion.
In that macroproject, Morozov follows in a robust modern tradition of American cybercynicism that receives scant attention from mainstream media such as the Times, eager to celebrate the latest gadgets and run endless ads from smartphone and other tech manufacturers (one of the only growth areas in media advertising over the past two decades).
Listen to the titles, stretching back to the 1980s: Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information. Mark Slouka's War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil. Gene Rochlin's Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization. More recently we've seen Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation. Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism. Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. Morozov joins an important, evolving American intellectual tradition that, in fact, dates back even further, at the very least to Thoreau's famous observation in Walden that "our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.... We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
Morozov's chief contribution? To sound the cybercynic alert in the realm of democracy activism and international politics, where media and government officials pay attention. Or, at least, so we hope.
Futurology, to be sure, has its own macrolevel problems. We're still waiting to join George Jetson in commuting to a three-hour-a-day job in our aerocar. Most of the certainties imagined by novelists Edward Bellamy, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells are on hold. When we hear the names of old futurists, such as Herman Kahn and Alvin Toffler, the mood evoked is nostalgia, as if we'd been transported to the "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. That alone should caution us about long-range prediction. As Arthur C. Clarke liked to say, "The future isn't what it used to be." Former Sun Microsystems cyberthinker John Gage offered a helpful corollary—"The future is always in the future"—suggesting that we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.
With breaking international politics, nonetheless, we understandably moderate this philosophical wisdom, recognizing that it would be nice for government officials to stay ahead of the curve. Recommendation to B. Obama: Forget the impromptu paper assignments and read some scholarship. In retrospect, Lou Cannon's biography of Ronald Reagan wasn't the ideal vacation book to lug home to Hawaii. Ω
[Carlin Romano is a Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus College. Romano joined the Ursinus faculty in 2010 following 25 years as Literary Critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he also served at various times as Book Editor, cultural reporter, general assignment city staffer and correspondent based in St. Petersburg, Russia. He received a B.A. at Princeton University, a M.Phil. at Yale University, and a J.D. at the Columbia University Law School. Romano remains a Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education.]
Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
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