Like many I’ve had my eyes on the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world over the past couple of days. The way angry young men and women are taking to the streets is a sign of things to come. Nothing symbolizes the fact that this is Generation Next Rising more than the widely used slogan “Game Over!” The generation who grew up playing video games and whose language incorporates international-video-game-English is turning against the gerontocracy.
In 50 years, less than two generations, Egypt’s population has exploded from less than 30 million to close to 75 million. Its population pyramid looks like a pyramid sitting on a huge raised dais as the vast majority of the population are under 30 years old, with a median age of 24. During my recent visit to Iran I had the opportunity to experience what such demographics feel like (Iran experienced similarly rapid population growth in the second half of the 20th century followed by a highly successful attempt to control population growth in recent years so that their population pyramid looks more like a pyramid on one fat leg). So, what does it feel like? Well, crowded obviously. However, not crowded in the way Tokyo feels crowded but crowded in a polluted, angry, competitive kind of way. I spoke with many highly educated young people who chafe at their economic marginalization, who are alternately depressed and angry about the fact that their talents, ambitions and best years are going to waste and who want out, nothing more than out.
Without wanting to compare Iran and Egypt in any way, population pressure is real across much of the Middle East, and indeed the global South, and it has generated masses of angry, frustrated and largely hopeless youths. The story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation sparked the uprising in Tunisia, is probably repeated countless times across the developing world (see also my earlier post about the burning children of Tangier). Exponential population growth is another key aspect of linguistic practice in motion that hardly any sociolinguist has even started to think about.
To date, the marginalized youths of the global South have mostly been kept at bay by plying them with video games and virtual worlds – the social equivalent to parenting-by-TV. English has been part and parcel of those virtual worlds. How all this is going to play out remains to be seen but one thing is for sure: the virtual was always going to be a poor substitute for hope. Game over! Hope springs eternal! I would love to supervise a PhD project exploring the intersections between the spread of English and the new angry young men and women of the global South.