Today, the role of the telegraph in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—just like the role of the tape recorder in the 1979 Iranian revolution and of the fax machine in the 1989 revolutions—is of interest to a handful of academics and virtually no one else. The fetishism of technology is at its strongest immediately after a revolution but tends to subside shortly afterward. In his 1993 best seller The Magic Lantern, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most acute observers of the 1989 revolutions, proclaimed that “in Europe at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions”—but in retrospect, the role of television in those events seems like a very minor point.
Will history consign Twitter and Facebook to much the same fate twenty years down the road? In all likelihood, yes. The current fascination with technology-driven accounts of political change in the Middle East is likely to subside, for a number of reasons. First of all, while the recent round of uprisings may seem spontaneous to Western observers—and therefore as magically disruptive as a rush-hour flash mob in San Francisco—the actual history of popular regime change tends to diminish the central role commonly ascribed to technology. By emphasizing the liberating role of the tools and downplaying the role of human agency, such accounts make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn’t have succeeded before Facebook was around—so Silicon Valley deserves a lion’s share of the credit. If, of course, the uprising was not spontaneous and its leaders chose Facebook simply because that’s where everybody is, it’s a far less glamorous story.