Yes They Can
It’s too soon to say whether the revolutionary eruptions of the human spirit that have occurred in Egypt and are now occurring in Libya and other Arab countries will end up being a good thing. As an American, as a Jew, and as a Zionist, I can’t be certain that everything will turn out fine.
But one thing is for sure: Something unprecedented is happening – something worth acknowledging — and the world will never again be quite the same.
Make no mistake; what we are watching is a youthquake. With almost two-thirds of the Egyptian population 30 years of age and under, this revolution is a generational conflict, and one greatly influenced and propelled by the internet in general and social media in particular. And for me as a boomer, there’s something reminiscent going on, with parallels with 1960s America, at least in one respect.
What helped create a generation gap with revolutionary implications here in this country back then was the fact that ours was the first TV generation. We were the first to be raised as much by mass media as by our parents. By the time I was 12 years old, I had as much in common with other 12 year olds in Baltimore, Boise and Boulder as I had with the mother and father I lived with. The tube was our baby sitter, playmate, teacher, entertainer, and tether to each other. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan had said, was the message, and TV’s message meant immediacy and connection.
So by the time we came of age, we boomers had a distinct culture and a palpable sense of we-ness that for many of us transcended even race and class. The result was that by 1970, America was a different place in ways no one could have imagined in 1960.
Well, something like this is happening now over in Egypt, throughout much of the Middle East, and across northern Africa – in Libya as we speak. We don’t yet know the implications of the first generation to be raised essentially by not only screens (TV; computer; telephone) but also by Google, Facebook and Twitter. We don’t yet know, but perhaps we’re getting a taste. It is technology that has connected and empowered the young over there in Egypt, and that helped topple the stubborn old dictator there. Theirs is the first Social Network generation, and revolution. (Note that the revolt in Egypt was bottom-up, non-hierarchical, and leaderless – just like the internet that helped spawn it. Their mostly non-violent uprising was largely influenced by an 83 year old writer in Massachusetts – Gene Sharp — whose ideas they read about online. Another influential figure is Wael Ghonim, a young Egyptian who is the head of Middle East Marketing for – you guessed it — Google). They had neither power nor guns. All they had was each other, an idea, and the means to connect. One of the most entrenched despots on the planet was overthrown in 18 days by kids with keyboards.
We over here haven’t even begun to understand the implications.
Our newscasters and pundits cluck their tongues at the tyrants of the Middle East while not beginning to grasp what this could mean right here in our own backyard. By 2020, America may be a different place in ways no one could have imagined in 2010.
As this generation comes of age here in this country, connected to each other by a common language and experience, they will probably leave the rest of us scratching our laptops in bewilderment. Just the difference in experience between those raised before smart phones and those being practically weaned by them now is both a generation gap and a digital divide. You and I may be tech savvy (well, you maybe) but we haven’t spent our tender years updating our friends on our comings and goings the past 10 minutes 25 times a day. They will most likely attempt to remake the world in their image, just as we boomers had attempted, and partially succeeded, in doing. At least the potential is there. If the medium is the message, my guess (and hope) is they’ll be demanding not just true democracy, but, perhaps just as important, transparency and inter-connectedness – which is what social media is, does, and demands. If a kid in Brooklyn by the time s/he is 12 years old has far more in common with other 12 year olds in Bombay, Barcelona and Beijing than their own parents or even their older siblings, swapping intimately personal information with them the way some of us used to swap baseball cards, do you think old concepts of “us vs. them”, of national borders, or fundamentalism will seem rational or even relevant to them?
But I’m just guessing here really. No one knows where this is going. Egypt, a peaceful revolution, was just the starting bell. The un-shot heard around the world. To say the sixties are coming again would be ridiculous. But to say another youthquake is imminent would not be.Consider this: Those who are young now will be the first generation in history able to carry access to most of the information available in the entire world…in the palm of their hand…from the time they could read. They’ve already bypassed email, and don’t bother leaving anyone under 20 (or even 30) a voicemail. If your children are awake, then they’re probably online, according to a recent New York Times article by that title. It explained that on average, kids age 8 to 18 in America spend practically every waking minute they’re not in school – about 7.5 hours a day – using a smartphone, computer, TV or other electronic device, plus another hour and a half texting, plus another half hour talking on the phone. If this doesn’t portend change, then I don’t know what does.
So let me take a moment now to stand back and look at all these opinions I’m putting forth here today. I have to admit that one reason I choose to believe what I’m writing here is because it’s more fun to live with hope and optimism. To connect the Joyful dots rather than the gloomy ones makes for a better picture. Most of my adult life my favorite spectator sport has been as a racing fan: I root for us as we humans race against our self-destruction. But I realize my predictions could be wrong.
And no doubt you could respond to this post with evidence my optimism is unjustified. Such evidence exists. But one could point to other evidence as well, and just in our lifetime. Think of this: If anyone back in 1979 were to have predicted that within 10 years the Soviet empire would collapse without a single shot being fired, they would have been laughed out of the room. If anyone back in 2004, or even 2006, would have predicted that Hillary Clinton would not get the Democratic nomination, that instead it would go to an unknown black guy whose name sounded more African than American, why they wouldn’t have even been let into the room.
We live in strange times, when miracles can and do happen. And there’s a chance we’re in for another youthquake here, and a chance for real change to occur.