On Jan. 28, 2011, Hosni Mubarak, an aging dictator tormented by youthful protesters, implemented what he must have believed was a clever stratagem. He cut off Egypt’s access to the internet—and for good measure, shut down much of the country’s cell phone service as well.
It’s easy to imagine what the old man was thinking: he was depriving the rebels of their home base and plunging them into darkness. As a political tactic, however, the move turned out badly. More harm was done to the Egyptian economy than to the protesters, and the panic of the regime had been fatally revealed to the world. Access was restored within five days. A week later, Mubarak, who had clung to power for 30 years, was compelled by the military to resign.
An immense cultural gulf separates us from 2011. At the time, Mubarak appeared ridiculous—a dotty King Canute lashing at the digital storm. The internet was the happy future, and nobody could stand in the way. Today, Mubarak and his futile gesture would be applauded by most right-thinking people of a certain stature. The enlightened elites have gone sour on the 21st century: they find the public too rowdy and too near, and they blame the web for enabling the deplorables to tramp with muddy boots into the sacred precincts of authority. Everyone at the top of the pyramid craves a way back to the cozy days of the industrial age; everyone is looking for some equivalent of the “Mubarak switch.”
Reactionary nostalgia is by no means restricted to octogenarian dictators. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Barack Obama expressed his conviction that the internet “is the single biggest threat to our democracy,” a remarkable statement for a politician of strong anti-establishment instincts who, in 2008, won the presidency in part because of a brilliant online campaign. But that was before the advent of Donald Trump, source and symbol of the cultural divide.
In the same interview, Obama called for vague “government regulations” to be imposed on the web. That’s his version of the Mubarak switch. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed an equally vague “breakup” of giant technology corporations. That’s her version. The goal is to make the vast digital universe somehow resemble the front page of The New York Times circa 1960, but the time machine is missing, and the elites are filled with despair. Francis Fukuyama, that barometer of the zeitgeist, holds that social media has been “weaponized against democracy” but worries that any fix “will be very difficult to implement.”
Well, yes. Fukuyama may have missed it, but we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic, with many of us stuck in quarantine or near-quarantine conditions that have kept us at home for months. Where would we be without the web? At the click of a mouse, Amazon brings us most of the necessities of life. This wasn’t a given. Between March and April alone, the company was forced to hire and train 175,000 additional warehouse and delivery workers. New safety protocols were put in place. Amazon’s performance in terms of ameliorating the human effects of the quarantine has been superior to any government that is not Taiwan’s. But don’t expect the company to receive a standing ovation. More typical is this Guardian article warning that Amazon’s success during the crisis could somehow make it “a threat to us all.”
Without Zoom and other digital video conferencing companies, the American economy—mighty engine of prosperity—would have shriveled to near-hunter-gatherer levels. This outcome wasn’t a sure thing either. The massive spike in demand could have crashed the system, creating an insufficiency variant of the Mubarak switch that would have left us fighting over the berries on the holiday wreath. Instead, Zoom was sometimes down but mostly up, and not just for business. I have attended a Zoom wedding and am about to attend a Zoom memorial service. Once a week I get together with friends for a Zoom bull session.
Beyond video calls, you can stay in touch with parents and siblings, kids and grandkids, on Facebook and Instagram. To keep up with neighbors and local news, there’s Nextdoor. When the conversation lags and that pandemic destroyer of minds, boredom, makes its dread appearance, you can enjoy entertainment on streaming services and watch reruns of Breaking Bad on Netflix or The Expanse on Amazon Prime. Granted, these are at best pale shadows of a well-rounded family and social existence, but it doesn’t take much analysis to grasp that, without them, many of us would soon descend into raving lunacy.
Of course, if you have a taste for irony, you can go to Netflix, a digital streaming site, and watch The Social Dilemma, a documentary about the horrors of digital life. You can think of it as a slick, manipulative film production slamming the online platforms for their slick, manipulative algorithms. In it, a succession of neo-Luddites and repentant techies tell us the internet is “really bad” or maybe “really, really bad,” like “a drug” but also like a “rabbit hole,” a “total new species of power” that uses “disinformation for profit as a business model.” The effects are manipulation, addiction, polarization and exile to the kingdom of lies.
“This is overpowering human nature,” we are told by one Tristan Harris, who nods approvingly when described as the “conscience” of Silicon Valley, “and this is checkmate on humanity.” Amid such a hellish landscape, Obama’s theme is sounded—“our democracy is under assault”—but feels like a minor complaint.
I can understand why newspapers like The New York Times lapse into bulgy-eyed rant mode when it comes to digital technology. Mass media has been swallowed by the web like plankton by a whale. Less evident, at least to me, is how such technophobia parses out in politics. Trump, not exactly a beacon of forward thinking, has been a digital beast—a sort of devouring dragon of Twitter. On the other hand, President-elect Joe Biden, who now owns the future, was probably too old and staid even to have partied in 1999.
Biden has promised a “National Taskforce on Online Harassment and Abuse,” which aims at a worthy goal and falls well short of a Mubarak switch. But if Biden thinks he can rule the web by taskforce, he will essentially cede it to the Trumps of the world. The new administration will have to get its hands dirty and compete with the populists on their own ground. Otherwise, the entire project will float away to the Celestial City of the Elites, while here on Earth rough and ragged characters have their way.
If, as Obama maintains, the internet poses the biggest threat to democracy today, then it has taken the place Nazis and Communists occupied in the last century, and “government regulations” are hardly a proportionate response. Should we nuke the web? That seems impracticable. Should the government invest billions on some agile version of the Mubarak switch, as it did with the fast-track COVID-19 vaccines? Only if it ignores the fate of Mubarak himself.
Once those life-supporting Amazon packages stop arriving and companies go bust because employees can’t work from home, and we lose touch with Granny out in Idaho Falls, the backlash will demolish everything and everyone associated with the scheme. A shrewd politician like Obama certainly understands this. His words must mean something other than what they say.
There was once a golden age in which admired politicians rode their motorcades to glory while the peasantry lined up outside the tinted windows and cheered. That moment ended long before the arrival of Trump, but most of our top leaders experienced it and can’t imagine any good reason why it should be over. Their shrieking horror of the internet is merely a form of mourning. That is their burden. Their constant reaching for a Mubarak switch is simply a denial of the finality of the 21st century. That is our burden.
The way out is not complicated: we must select a new governing class with brains that face forward instead of back. Normally, Mother Nature would take care of this tricky business, and 2020, one hopes, was the last gasp of the baby boomers. But in these trying times, when young people are distinguished chiefly by their capacity to spread infection, we should probably give some actual thought to the question of who will replace a less-than-great generation.