Reem Abbas Shawkat

One of the most important characteristics of the digital era is how it democratized who can be an intellectual. It democratized how we access ideas and how we spread our ideas. Some argue that it democratized knowledge. The intellectual with his/her academic degrees, books and writings and perceived knowledge is no longer the truth-speaker, the one who has the ultimate knowledge and thus, speaks the truth on each subject. So, the contemporary intellectual has emerged to fill this void. This contemporary or digital or young intellectual, whatever you want to call him/her, was born out of this democratization of knowledge and out of the fact that the digital sphere has provided him/her with:

  • A platform: an online venue where they can speak their minds. If before they needed a specific kind of degree to write in journals, they now only need a smart phone or a laptop to write on and contribute to their online platform.
  • A network: there is a large constituency of students, youth, professionals who spend a significant amount of their lives on the internet; reading, writing, liking and discussing. This network is valuable, large, diverse and very good at communicating its feedback.

When we talk about digital intellectualism and the contemporary young intellectual, it will be important to note that the so-called contemporary or young intellectual does not necessarily identity as an intellectual; they reject this word. They identify as a social media personality, thinker, social change-maker, digital trouble-maker, digital activist, the voice behind the keyboard; they have so many titles.

In fact, for this new generation, the word “intellectual” almost has negative connotations. The intellectual became a way to make fun of a certain presumed lifestyle; those who drink black coffee without sugar, those who grow their hair, read books in public transportation and spaces, listen to Fayrouz and Mustafa Seed-Ahmed, quote Rumi and other poetic figures.

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What does this mean? What is behind the titles? When we talk about the contemporary young intellectual, we talk about a generation where academia is not necessarily a marker of their intellectualism, where there is no marriage between intellectualism and the academia.

Here, I will refer to my contemporaries as intellectuals despite their wishes.

The Characteristics

This new generation of “intellectuals” is comprised of men and women. The privileges that men have in everyday life are lessened as men and women can carve online spaces and speak with the same authority. They have excellent writing capabilities and are able to articulate their opinions very well on broad subject matters. They found their fan-base and readership on social media. They have many friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, they could have a blog or a Tumblr and are active on Facebook commentary groups such as Mesahat Hurra, Mihera and so on.

This group of new intellectuals comments on current issues, critiques films, books and other artistic materials to communicate the fact that they are on top of every worldly production. They sometimes use their solid social media presence to communicate their activist leanings, they are the modern day Abdul-Khaliq Mahjoub, but instead of speaking on the streets and inside symposiums, they are writing their political strategies on blogs and long Facebook statuses that often receive many likes and comments. Anything they say on Facebook inspires a heated debate both online and offline. Their Facebook statuses become widely discussed inside Ozone and in front of the tea lady in Atenay.

Writing in Society Journal in 2009, Daniel Drezner, a political scientist, argued that the internet has saved the public intellectual from going into decline and created what he called “public intellectuals 2.1”. In fact, he states that “the growth of the blogosphere breaks down or at least lowers the barriers erected by a professionalized academy.” In other words, the digital intellectual can speak from outside the academia or venues that were previously considered closed spaces to the public and only the eligible intellectuals can access them. Finally, the paper argued that digital intellectuals can communicate with the public and this gives them the advantage to get feedback and make themselves relevant, and in turn, more effective to the aspirations and needs of the public as the whole discussion becomes interactive and not a monologue.

Interactivity is one of the most important characteristics of digital intellectuals. They engage in communication, it’s always a dialogue and not a monologue and this allows them to retain and acquire their followers.

Let us delve deeper into the characteristics of the online intellectual verses the traditional intellectual. The traditional intellectual is mostly concerned with the national cause as the most significant topic of discussion.  They always talk about the governance, the ongoing Sudan crisis, the alternative policies and politics. They represent the older generation, they represent a timeline where intellectualism was closely tied to elitism and graduating from the University of Khartoum. The older intellectuals are ideally from North-Central Sudan and are males. Their intellectualism is mainly paper-based as they write books, contribute to journals and newspapers and speak in forums and conferences. They are tied to the academia or work in professional settings.

The digital intellectuals are mostly not tied to academia, they are professionals, but mostly in creative professions. They are writers, civil society actors, bloggers, musicians, film-makers, pastry chefs, translators and even doctors. Most of them don’t have published books and their writings are on digital platforms ranging from social media outlets to online newspapers. This intellectual doesn’t only have friends online, they have “followers” and their loyalty lies in the number of “likes” or “retweets” they give them. This contemporary intellectual is always asserting their opinion and communicating with the public on their writings. They develop online friendships and allies with like-minded people and fans who devour their ideas and writings.

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The Online Wars

In early May 2015, a journalist and a digital intellectual in his own right commented on a statement made by the spokesperson of SAF in which he said that they hit a moving body and this was a reason for an explosion heard in Khartoum that week. His comment was through publishing a picture of a woman and commenting on the picture “this is the only moving body we know”. The digital intellectual has the platform and the network to discuss all topics, but this also makes them exposed. This exposure is large, as thousands from the online sphere can in the span of one hour access the post and comment.

The comments poured in and the online war began. The thing is; digital intellectuals don’t necessarily ask existential questions about the future of Sudan, they discuss anything from music to politics to feminism to regional relations. The debate got so intense that it prompted a blogger and a digital intellectual, who also refers to herself as the “Feminist Police” on all social media outlets, to weigh in on this debate and publish a blog-post about this picture and the comments made by the online intellectual on this picture. The thing about the internet is that, the digital sphere has an ingrained memory; nothing you say online will be deleted thanks to first and foremost: the screenshots.

The sexists and the ones with misogynistic leanings were exposed. To be a digital intellectual, you have to be ready, you can get attacked and your opinions will be scrutinized and everything you said will be stored in the digital memory. The blog-post written by our favorite “feminist police” went viral because it exposed the fact that the digital intellectual sphere has inherited some diseases that we diagnosed the traditional intellectuals with. There is inherent and deeply-engrained sexism and misogyny and every time women’s issues are brought up, they get sidelined and questioned. But just like the internet has democratized knowledge, it also gave women more inclusivity and democratized their contribution to debates.  They are online, liking, tweeting, posting, writing, expressing, getting angry and expressing their gratitude. Women have marked themselves with a special presence online and continue to fight online wars to make this presence both comfortable and significant.

In recent weeks, a journalist came under fire by digital intellectuals as she expressed in her column what they viewed as a classist and sexist perspective on female Zanig musicians (musicians such as Najaf Gorza, Rasha Al-Khor, Al-Zanjya etc.). Her column spread like wild fire and the comments continued to flow from digital intellectuals and the followers of digital intellectuals who shared and commented on the column.

If you are anywhere near the digital sphere, you will know that online wars are real and in a venue where everyone has an opinion and has a platform to share it, no-one will nod their head to you. In one day, you could stop being the social media or digital Guru and icon and become a bygone character. You get unfollowed, your likes and shares decrease and you have to work very hard to get your former status back.

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The Generational Gap

There is a generational gap between this modern/contemporary intellectual and the older generations. The older generations do not understand this contemporary intellectual and at times, they even ignore them. They cannot and do not take them seriously. In the words of a traditional intellectual: ‘how can you get taken seriously if you speak what is closely considered “Randook”?’

The older generations want to see the contemporary intellectual adopt their strategies and want them to speak inside the establishments. They ask if they can write a book, if they can even write something beyond a 300-word status on Facebook or a 140 character on Twitter or a blog-post of 500 words. They ask if they even have proper command of the languages they use. The traditional or older intellectuals are very confident- they are after all the generations of the 1964 revolution and the 1985 Intifada. The contemporary intellectuals are the product of the failures of 1964 and 1985, their writings and intellect stems from the daily struggles they face in a crippling environment and crippled country, they create narratives and food for thought out of their daily struggle to get by and survive stifling laws, a political environment and restricted social freedoms.

The digital intellectual unlike the older generation is very accessible and this in itself could be a challenge. This accessibility and the pressure to be connected all the time could take a serious toll on him/her. They are always expected to be online, expected to give their opinion and expected to communicate with their readers and to have a well-nuanced opinion on everything.

On another note, the older generations are slowly trying to navigate the circles of the modern intellectual by joining social media and trying to share their articles and writings online. However, they can’t speak the language of the digital era. The contemporary intellectual knows how to capture attention and can communicate in a language understood by a large constituency; they decide what is talas and what is not.

 

From new modes of communication, generational disparities and online wars, the environment shaping the contemporary intellectual’s evolution is notable and will change the way information and opinions shapes the knowledge environment in Sudan.

This essay was presented at The Intellectual Symposium, organized in Khartoum between the 29th and 30th of April 2017, by the Sudanese Knowledge Society.

This post is also available in: Arabic

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