Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Twitter and Facebook didn't create the Egyptian revolution. But Silicon Valley's belief they did shows the smug, ethnocentric blindness that's damaging the technology industry

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Paul Revere galloped from Charlestown to Lexington on that famous night in 1775. He couldn't have done it without his horse, so did that mean the American Revolution was really the "horse revolution"? That's silly, of course. But calling the Egyptian revolution the "Facebook (or Twitter) revolution" is just as misguided, and it's a symptom of our ethnocentric habit of viewing the world through the prism of the American experience or -- in the case of Egypt -- American technology.

There's no doubt that Twitter and Facebook were tools the mostly young Egyptian rebels used to good effect. But that's all they were: tools. After all, the revolution continued -- and intensified -- when those tools were disabled by the Egyptian govenment's shutdown of the Internet. Yet we in the media and the technology industry are absolutely convinced that it couldn't have happened without social networking. As New Yorker magazine author Malcolm Gladwell puts it: "Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools." Exactly.

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The blind spot that puts the American tech industry at risk
If that blind spot extended no further than to foreign news events, it would be crippling enough. But the emergence of the developing world as a key market, supplier, and competitor makes that occluded vision all the more dangerous -- and yet another reason why it's so difficult for us to compete against countries such as India, China, South Korea, and Singapore.

It's worth noting, for example, that Asia now accounts for 20 percent of world software revenue; when that's added to Europe's 36 percent share, the American market is a minority, according to a study by Pierre Audoin Consultants. The middle class in those countries is growing rapidly, and like the Horatio Alger story of old, many of those newly prosperous people are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

As another example of that occluded vision in America, consider the H-1B visa. Forget for a minute that many of us (including me) see it as an excuse to undercut domestic labor in the IT industry. Instead, ask yourself: When was the last time you met someone here on an H-1B who didn't speak pretty good English? Not very often, I'm sure.

Those folks are willing to learn a difficult foreign language if that's what it takes to succeed. Indeed, countries like Vietnam have made the teaching of English a national priority. Yet foreign language proficiency in the United States is lower than in almost any other country in the developed world. (I'm not, of course, considering the millions of Americans of Hispanic heritage who speak both fluent Spanish and English.) Do you see the connection?

No one dies for Facebook
You don't need to be a military historian or a combat vet to know a simple truth: A soldier fights and dies for the guy next to him, not primarily for patriotism, or glory, or ideology, but for the other men (and sometimes women) in the unit. That is what Gladwell called a "strong-tie connection," in a New Yorker essay fittingly subtitled "Why the revolution will not be tweeted."

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