16 June 2009

Messages in a virtual bottle

I haven't been to Iran in quite a long time. What I'm hearing from friends (on both sides of the current political divide) there, however, is reminiscent of 1978. One similarity is the place of information and communication technologies.

Those were the end days of the Shah's brutal SAVAK maintained régime. The revolution which was to usher in the equally brutal successor régime made shrewd samizdat style use of audio tape cassettes (passed from hand to hand and easily copied) to spread propaganda – including addresses by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in Paris.

Technology has moved on dramatically in the last 31 years, and those in Iran today tell me that as protest grows on the streets their ability to send SMS text messages and emails is being interdicted, while web access is unpredctable. It's possible that this is purely a result of the system being swamped at a time of intense traffic; it's also possible that the system fully understands how SMS, email and web can be used in the same way as audio cassettes.

Historically, success in revolutionary times has a general tendency to go to those who provide information rather than those who constrain it. De Gaulle, for instance, frustrated a 1961 coup for instance, by providing free transistor radios to conscripts in Algeria so that he could speak directly to them. If the Iranian powers that be really are squeezing communications, it suggests desperation.

Addition, 10:09: Having followed Unreal Nature's recommendation to Andrew Sullivan's blog, I see that Twitter appears to be functioning – and in similar use. Neither I nor those with whom I am in regular contact tend to be regular Twitter users, so this passed me by ... but it's another channel to make repressive authority nervous.

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