Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Can't Stop the Signal

A quick follow-up to Monday's post about the cable networks' failure to properly cover the situation in Iran over the weekend:

To be honest, Twitter kind of annoys the hell out of me. I get that just about everyone's on it these days, and that it certainly provides real-time information in ways that other social networks might not be able to (which gives 99.9% of its subscribers the chance to relay such ground-breaking information as the fact that they really liked that new episode of How I Met Your Mother, or maybe that they're having a particularly troublesome bowel movement). But for me, after blogging, MySpace and Facebook, I'm just all shared out. I'd say that there's an entirely separate column to be written on the cultural phenomenon of surrendering every last vestige of your personal privacy; obviously, though, that's already been done to death by social anthropologist types far more learned than myself.

All of that said, there's no denying that the rise of Twitter -- and the prevalence of networking outlets in general around the globe -- has brought hyper-connectivity to an entirely new level within our society. More than ever, we really are "one world" thanks to the ability of each of us to log on and share our thoughts and experiences.

Which is what makes the situation going on in Iran right now, literally and figuratively, the first honest-to-God "Internet Revolution."

Since almost the very beginning, the oppressing of an entire people was relatively easy. You used military might to subdue them, true. But you also made sure to keep an iron grip on the media so that no one inside your culture or outside saw anything you didn't want them to see. What we've witnessed in Iran over the past several days is the collapse of control on the part of a somewhat dictatorial government -- and not just in a military or political sense. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration ran every play in the trusted totalitarian crackdown playbook: It attempted to shut down television stations and newspapers, it tried to disrupt cell signals, it expelled journalists it found annoying by refusing to renew their visas -- and yet in the end it couldn't stop the story from getting out. That's because there are now 30-million some-odd journalists in Iran and it can't expel them all. Anyone with access to a mobile phone could shoot video; anyone who could get to a computer or could upload video to Facebook remotely had the ability to put the story out there for the world to see. The government was powerless to censor any of it.

It's really an amazing thing to behold: a truly landmark event not simply for Iran but for the entire world and how we connect with each other -- and what we can do with that connection to actually better our lives.

I've made the point before that the ascendancy of new media as a cultural force has brought with it an unprecedented level of transparency -- it's made it much harder for a few to lie to many outright. Neither the suppression of information nor the oppression of people survives very long in sunlight -- and with everyone being given the ability to be his or her own crusader, through something as simple as a blog, or Facebook, or Twitter, there's a hell of a lot of sunlight out there right now.

Just ask the government of Iran.

The truth, like everything else these days, can be spread virally. And hopefully, it really will set you free.


Christine said...

An Iranian (Persian, if we're being exact) friend of mine made a plea on Facebook that I would like to pass on. She lives here in DC, but mentioned that the government is now using the location and time zone of Twitter users to track down those within Iran that are transmitting information outside. People around the world are thwarting their efforts by changing their Twitter account to show Tehran as their location, and using the time zone GMT +3.30.

It seems almost silly, but then again, the entire concept of Twitter becoming a political rebellion tool seems silly too... so if it makes it more difficult for the authorities in Iran, I'm all for it.

L. said...

They've asked people on Twitter to change their location to Tehran and their time zone to GMT+3.5 to help camouflage the actual Iranians so that they can share news via Twitter. They've been having their IPs blocked so they can't say what's going on.

Girl With Curious Hair said...

A minor point: Ahmadinejad has little control or say of what happens with the television stations. The one person who was once best at this was Rafsanjani--a true Machiavelli--who forged a strong relationship with Khomeni and gave control of media to his brother (back in the 80s). The final decisions are still with the Supreme Leader (both then and now), so it is Khamenei who gets the final say on what is and isn't broadcast. The surreal crack in that control is seen in places like PressTV who seem to be broadcasting slightly more accurate information because they have an international audience.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Twitter, like almost anything, can be used to great benefit or great stupid.

I encourage people interested in history unfolding to check out the live blog on Iran over at HuffPo. it's a captivating read.

fortyozspartan said...

They just need a little guidance from China.

carly said...

what do you have against "how i met your mother"?! seriously!

Gabby said...

I know - for once I am encouraged about people using their blackberries (which I fucking hate). It is very good news - literally - and I hope hope HOPE the people in Iran don't back down until their government does.

Tania said...

'Can't stop the signal' is the perfect rallying call for this internet revolution, and those which will surely follow. Thanks, Joss...

I'm going to change my Twitter location and time as requested. Let's confound those bungers!

A Bowl Of Stupid said...

1. Nice breakdown on how these seemingly minor technological annoyances ... err, advances are affecting the bigger picture.

2. Excellent Serenity callback.

Che Grovera said...

Don't succumb to your hyperbolic urges, Chez. This is hardly a revolution going on in Iran -- yet. An uprising, sure. Is that ridiculous time sump called Twitter helping catalyze events there? Again, sure.

But there is nothing unique about Twitter that warrants the attention that particular service is receiving. It's big, it's overhyped, and it will be gone in five years. So-called "micro-blogging" exists only because of technological limitations in cellphone short messages (SMS), which themselves are on an express train to oblivion. Netscape is history, AOL is on life support, and this internet industry that eats its young will indiscriminately claim many more high-profile victims.

Underlying it all is the fundamental human need to communicate, and it's wireless networks that are the prime driver in these epochal events. China is already the largest cellphone market in the world, so their leaders have done let that cat out of the bag as they pushed their domestic manufacturers to chase elusive credibility in the global telecom equipment market (hint: they're trying hard and they're smart but they're also provincial and that is their chronic undoing).

Totalitarians are nothing if not adaptive, and they'll ultimately adjust to this change in the ecosystem of human politics. Besides, the internet is just as capable of being used to bind ostensibly free citizens ever tighter into the databases of elected governments as it is to fuel rebellion in South Waziristan. Hell, we already tolerate a Federal Government no-fly list administered by that Bill-of-Rights-busting TSA. The First and Fourth Amendments mean a whole lot less than they used to, and technology certainly shares some of the blame.

A Bowl Of Stupid said...

But with said, you should also probably take a look at this new article in Slate:

He makes a good point -- let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

Chez said...

Che -- I agree completely about Twitter. I'm frankly tired of hearing about how it, as a singular phenomenon, is changing the way we communicate. It is to an extent -- but really the thing's just a fad, part of a larger overall media revolution. You're right -- it will probably be gone in a few years, but what's important to note is that it will be replaced by something else. The communication genie is out of the bottle and it's probably not going back in.

As for the ability to clamp down on something like Twitter -- yes, those who wish to oppress will learn and learn fast. But things are moving so quickly -- they're evolving in such an unprecedented fashion -- that I think it's going to be a lot harder for anyone to keep up when it comes to silencing the masses.

Dev said...

Twitter's not the only technology helping out:

Can't stop the signal, indeed.