Printing our Generation

‘If all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.’ — Benjamin Franklin

Old Linotype lettering machine, photograph: Werner Moser, from Freeimages.com

Ibrahim Mothana was 24 years old the day I met him. Expressive, well read and persuasive, there was just something about him that caught attention. He was the type of person you’d expect to find in an epic saga - the young hero with a dangerous quest. A charismatic Bilbo Baggins, with a wicked sense of humour.

Born in Yemen, Ibrahim became a voice for the new generation, growing up in conflict but not made hopeless by war. He spoke for a people wanting to be heard amidst the turmoil created by warring factions and interfering powers. Articulate, passionate with a thirst for knowledge, Ibrahim embodied the awakening happening on the sandy streets of Yemen — of youth fighting for a future, women demanding an education and old men trying to make sense of a violent world they recognised no longer.

But on that autumn day, with British rain reliably drizzling down, it was his eloquent outspokenness that drew me in. He argued ardently against the toll of the United States’ drone programme, its ineffectiveness as a military strategy and the increasing number of civilian bodies piling up.

I met Ibrahim, his inconvenient truths and elegant ideas on that grey Friday afternoon. I remember the sound of raindrops falling on the windowpane, the patter of fingers pecking at keyboards and the hum of the kettle boiling the fifth round of office tea, as I sat entranced by his words.

Ibrahim Mothana, Photograph: Facebook

I met Ibrahim two years after he died.

I met Ibrahim when I stumbled upon his brilliance through the internet. I met him through the article he wrote for the New York Times, persuading readers that drones help Al Qaeda by driving civilians to rage and despair. I met him through his vigorous criticism to a senate subcommittee on the legality of using drones in Yemen. I met him through the anecdotes published after his death to show the life he led. I met him through the many essays, emails and eulogies populating the internet.

I met and lost Ibrahim in one quiet afternoon.

It is a curious connection that forms between a writer of ideas and a reader of their words. He died at 24, but the echoes of his voice are loud, and the impact of his life, deep. He was a passionate advocator for democracy and his published ideas offended some and made others uneasy. Nonetheless, their importance in a region of instability set on fire cannot be underestimated.

Words have power and the beauty of the internet is that our generation cannot be silenced.

The ink may not physically run but on this platform, anyone can speak their truth and test the robustness of formed opinions. While politicians are spewing xenophobic rhetoric, we can reach beyond borders and unite in our shared humanity. Beyond the digital ink, the internet leads to action, making it the greatest tool of our century. Powerful words shared across the world can bring like-minded people together to generate an impact on disastrous situations.

Censorship also remains a reality today as patterns from history seek to repeat. We are at a time of increasing infringement on our privacy and freedoms in the name of security. The age-old fight between what can and cannot be printed has just expanded to the web. Some argue the legality of whistleblowers publishing information those in power wish to keep secret. But no one can deny the printing of those words is often only possible due to the internet. Others attempt to suppress ideas that don’t fit with their narrative or offend their sensibilities.

Today we see repressive regimes and genocidal dictatorships in a constant struggle to stop the flow of ideas. We see young men and women persecuted for speaking out, for resisting and for offending with uncomfortable words. A blogger remains imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for opinions typed. A generation of young activists are imprisoned in Egypt in a bid to silence their truth. A stream of journalists is held captive around the world in an attempt to intimidate. They stand on the front line of this conflict.

Over and over again we are confronted with those who wish to silence. They use violence and threats and do not seem to understand-

They are fighting a battle already lost.

Today more than ever, you cannot eradicate what you do not wish to hear. It was easier to censor in the past, to please those in power by holding their political agenda as truth. But the Church is no longer in control and the Galileos of this world have access to the printers.

When terrorists stormed a building in Paris and killed journalists for the crime of insulting a religion, they proved you could not suppress free speech with violence — and if you do, it is not for long. The aftermath, with known dictators marching and mouthing je suis Charlie, while those they imprisoned for words that offended still languished in jail, also proved the hypocrisy of being selective on who has the right to offend.

Photograph: Julia Freeman-Woolpert, from Freeimages.com

Today, we have a platform that connects us tightly to a plurality of truths. Powerful passionate typed words changing the way people think. On the internet, everyone can speak and print for themselves while men like Ibrahim stand out and make an impact on the world with their logic and eloquence.

This clash of voices is vital for progress. Throughout history, the greatest moments of civilisations were when ideas, opinions and disagreements flowed freely to further the arts and sciences. Society advances through differences in beliefs and those unafraid to challenge the status quo. The internet has globalised that clash and inspired revolutions like the Arab spring. While it may have given mixed results, it highlighted the inability of dictators to prevent the people from sharing ideas and opinions and turning them into action. As Dex Torricke-Barton writes, the internet is the greatest community in the history of humanity — a tool that reaches an audience of 3 billion people and one that is operated by all its readers, real-time.

Benjamin Franklin would have loved the internet — after all, it is the printer of our generation.

*Shortlisted for the 2015 Benjamin Franklin House literary prize.