Keyboard Activists Called Out At Technology & Society Lecture Series Kickoff

Ahmed Salah, who addressed the audience from Cairo, Egypt, via Skype, takes a question from a student

"Get up from your keyboard," urged Ahmed Salah, one of the chief supporters of the overthrow of longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as he answered a first-year student asking for recommendations on getting others more politically involved. 

Salah gave his advice over Skype from Cairo. It was past midnight there, but the activist didn't appear tired as he spoke to the audience gathered at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU's Pfizer Auditorium in early November. The 150-odd crowd was there for the inaugural event of the Technology & Society Lecture Series, which featured Salah and author Chris Hables Gray sharing their respective views on political demonstrations and social media. 

The combination of the two subjects exemplifies a chief goal of NYU-Poly's Department of Technology, Culture & Society, which hosts the series: highlighting the effects technology has on society. "We wanted to start off with a lecture that very emphatically shows that a lot of current events—what's on the front page of the newspaper today—actually need to be understood through the lens of technology," explained Harold Sjursen, who teaches courses on ethics and the philosophy of technology as a member of the department.

As he and his colleagues considered speakers for the series, which will bring three more lecturers over the course of the academic year, it seemed to them that much of the media's analysis of recent changes in the Middle East (the so-called "Arab Spring") had been "casual," Sjursen said, "suggesting that a lot of social change comes about automatically simply because of Internet communications and cell phones and social media."

The department wished to complicate that view and so invited Salah and Gray, both of whom proceeded to call into question the relationship between political action today and the technology that supports it.

Said Gray in an interview before his lecture, "There's a tendency among young people to think, 'Oh, this is the first movement that's ever been like this,' which is not true." He was referring to the "social media revolution" label slapped onto the Egyptian uprising by the popular media earlier this year ("The Face of Egypt's Social Networking Revolution," read one CBS News headline in February) and which may yet come to characterize this fall's Occupy Wall Street protests, if the greeting on Salon.com's site last weekend is any indication: "Welcome to the 'Augmented Revolution,'" it said about the demonstrations.

Neither social media nor printing press revolution

The press has it wrong, though, argued Gray: "Each wave of technology is different. That's what you need to understand."

Warming to his topic, Gray cited a historical example: "It would be like when America had its last revolution—then it was the press. Freedom of the press was very important. Many people went to jail to support freedom of the press, but no one calls the American revolution 'the printing press revolution.'"

For Gray and Salah, people are the ultimate drivers of change. "It would be a big mistake to think that revolution can be replicated everywhere through social media alone," said Salah during the event, chiding those he called "keyboard activists." "Do things out on the street" was his recommendation.

Moving away from technology may seem like a funny conclusion to reach in a lecture series tying technology and society together, but Gray disagrees. "Young people think, 'Oh, now technology is important.' It wasn't important twenty years ago? One hundred years ago? No," he says, shaking his head. "Technology has always been important." 

So, even as the author criticized the press for overemphasizing the role social media played and continues to play in today's political theater, he remained a fan of technology and its ability to improve our future. "We need to shape technology in ways that will free us," Gray ended.

To find out more about the Technology & Society Lecture Series, visit its home.