TBE has seen a couple of interesting things downtown in the last couple of days…
The first is the new traffic lights in Midan Talaat Harb. Two nights ago TBE witnessed cars stopping at the red light without any policemen present. When a car failed to stop, our cab driver laughed and said something to the effect of “He must not’ve seen the cameras…” The cameras have been in place for a couple weeks, but were for most of that time were lacking in wires, as our very observant photo editor pointed out to us. Without the wires, cars didn’t stop. Now thick orange wires or rather cords can be seen wending their way from the cameras down into the ground underneath the square. We assume that the flashy new machine-made license plates were created in part so that cameras like these have an easier time reading them.
TBE believes Tim Mitchell, following Foucault, may have written about something like this in Colonizing Egypt, which you should read if you haven’t already. Without the book handy it’s hard to recreate the argument, but it boils down to the idea that in the olden days regimes exercised direct physical control over their subjects, whereas a more modern method is to have those subjects internalize their own oppression. So we guess this is progress of a sort…?
If interested in this idea, its probably also worth reading Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, though TBE found that one a bit impenetrably anthropological at times. At any rate here’s a review of Colonizing Egypt written by Hirschkind.
Second, anyone who has spent any significant time downtown, particularly on Shawarbi Street (aka Jeans Alley), or seen Omar come callin’, has probably witnessed that moment when, often without receiving any advance warning, street peddlers hastily pack up their wares and head to their stash houses or, more often than not, stash-lobbies of nearby buildings.
This evening at the corner of Talaat Harb and Abd al-Salam ‘Aref TBE saw an interesting iteration of this age-old game of cat and mouse. Some peddlers had some ties and things set up on the steps where a small selection of newspapers is usually for sale. Anyway the traffic cop then proceeds to call out, “Yalla ya [name redacted]” to one of the peddler. He and his fellows then proceeded to quickly pack up and leave, before the anti-street peddling task force set foot on the scene. One assumes their was some monetary imperative involved here, but maybe not.
What ties these two events together is something that has interested TBE for a long time: How information is disseminated in societies where formal modes of communication like journalism are absent or irrelevant. How did all the drivers entering Midan Talaat Harb suddenly know that the cameras had been switched on? Or how, when walking in Khan al-Khalili do the merchants more often then not know what language to speak to customers even if they’ve been mum for quite some time? And how will US news consumers in small markets learn about what’s happening when all the local newspapers go out of business?