Egypt, the Internet and the washing machine…




The last few weeks has seen a furious drive of liberation and self-assertion by the people of the Middle East. Starting with Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine revolution’ early in the year, Egypt has fallen to protestors, with uprisings spreading to Morocco, Bahrain, Libya and Iraqi Kurdistan with promises of a ‘day of rage’ in Saudi Arabia if the royal family don’t bring about major reforms. Central to these earthshaking events is the conspicuous presence of online social networking sites – primarily Facebook and Twitter – including reports of an Egyptian revolutionary naming his daughter ‘Facebook’ (No, we’re not kidding).

But is all the hype about the revolutionary impact of social networking justified? The truth, as ever, is complicated and messy.

In his thought-provoking new book, ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism,’ the acclaimed economist Ha-Joon Chang puts forward the novel idea that “the washing machine was more revolutionary than the internet”, a fact that may seem totally counterintuitive to the information generation. But Professor Chang has a point: In an age where digital media is apparently inspiring revolutions in the Middle East it’s easy to forget that the washing machine was a truly revolutionary innovation contributing strongly to the liberation of women, whereas the contributions of social networking sites to the world is as yet not well understood.

Photo: Karen Robinson

Several noted journalists have already expressed their frustration with the hype regarding the impact of online social networks: here’s Laurie Pennie over at the New Statesman, Daniel Kravets at Wired and everyone’s favourite curly-haired Canadian polymath, Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker.

A more interesting view comes from Jay Rosen regarding the naysayers who display an almost dogmatic insistence that social media had little, if any, involvement in the revolution. Rosen is clearly correct that neither extreme “tells us much about our world”; instead a more useful point of analysis is that of Ha-Joon Chang’s above. Four years ago, a study by Emanuel Cardia at the University of Montreal studied the change in traditional female roles initiated by modern technology.

Cardia looked at data from US 1940s and ‘50s censuses and found that “increased female labor force participation rates are strongly correlated with the increased adoption of indoor plumbing facilities” and cites independent data that indicates that “ownership of washing machines, dryers and freezers increased the presence of married women in the labor market”. The figures are somewhat slanted by the increased female workforce during the Second World War, but the point still remains that women’s roles were changed massively during the period away from domesticity and towards greater financial and social independence.

For all the sexism in the imagery, washing machines contributed massively to the liberation of women (Picture courtesy of Kristina's Random World: http://kristinasrandomworld.blogspot.com/2009/10/norge-washing-machine-ad.html

The reason for this furious explosion of women’s liberation was because the washing machine and other household technologies allowed women a larger amount of free time: Cardia cites an earlier study that calculated the decrease of time spent on domestic chores, from 58 hours a week in 1900 to 18 in 1975!

Now, as Peter Beaumont at the Observer argues, “the contribution of social networks to the Arab uprisings has been as important as it also has been complex, contradictory and misunderstood” but this is a subtle point that seems lost on some social networking enthusiasts. Some evidence that Gladwell and co. might be onto something comes from the fact that Libya’s crackdown on internet services didn’t hinder the revolution, indicating that – as the brilliant professor Juan Cole points out – “labour unions and factory workers have been more important”.
An “enthusiastic” take on the events in the middle east

Ever since the French Revolution of 1789 there has been an appetite for revolution in a certain type of doctrinaire intellectual. However, after a century of several calamitous revolutions that modelled themselves on the violent events of 1789, perhaps it is the well-founded suspicion of radical social change that influences the naysayers but there are still a few points to take away when thinking about this issue:

  • Technology CAN be a driving factor in social change – as with the washing machine and its contributions to women’s liberation – but it is very rarely the CAUSE of this change (women still had to go out and find jobs and fight for recognition in the workplace).
  • Dictatorships are all-encompassing and can shut down internet services as in Libya. If a revolution still carries on, there is usually something else driving the revolution.
  • Rosen pointed out that citations and references have not been forthcoming from the naysayers, this could indicate a straw man attack.
  • NO one can, in principle, predict the outcome, content or timeline of revolutions, except by a statistical anomaly. Don’t jump on bandwagons analysing revolutions in real-time. As some commentators keep helpfully reminding us, experts in economics and politics are often no better at predicting complex events than ordinary people.



One thing social media can do, and has done, is provide a much-needed increase in solidarity. As anyone who has followed these events from their computer screen knows, solidarity is more widespread thanks to the efforts of online activists like Sarah Abdallah. Support – whatever form it may take – is meaningful and social networking has allowed it to flourish massively around the world, and that is as revolutionary an act as anybody would want to commit.

Bharat Azad

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