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As Long as We Remember...

July 9, 2009

The Wave of the Future

Tony Soltero

During the ongoing Iranian election crisis, an expression that quickly evolved from inspired observation to hoary cliché was "The Revolution Will Be Twittered." But even though the phrase has become tiresome, it doesn't mean that it's not reflective of a profound and game-changing development in the communications capabilities of ordinary citizens.


And this has enormous and exciting implications for the future of human freedom and human rights around the world.


In the past, the Iranian authorities would have been able to clamp down on any dissent quickly before it had a chance to jell into something organized. Totalitarian governments thrive on control of information, and one of the effects of this suppression is that many citizens, who feel dissatisfaction with the political system, believe they're isolated in their position.


But in recent years, as peer-to-peer social networking tools have matured and their capabilities expanded, young Iranians have been able to realize that they're not alone in their longings to free themselves from the brutal yoke of Islamic fundamentalism and its merger with state power.


And apparently the mullahs were way behind the curve, as the Iranian establishment's first reaction to the massive demonstrations challenging the legitimacy of the recent election was one of flat-footed puzzlement. Only later did it occur to them to jam up the Internet. Even so, local bloggers were able to get the word out as to what was really happening in the country. There was an independent alternative to the usual state-run media pabulum, and the world noticed.


The result was breathtaking. Though it appears that the fundamentalist establishment has managed to retain power for now, the mullahs' legitimacy with ordinary Iranians has been destroyed. When religious leaders are caught lying to suit their agendas, their reputations as holy men take a massive hit. They might hang onto their leadership positions for a period of time, but make no mistake, their days are numbered. Few leaders survive long without public credibility.


While it is facile to suggest that the new media – blogs, Twitter, etc. – proved decisive in this development, it's not an exaggeration to say that the new media made things move much faster. When the authorities of any nation lose their power to control the flow of information, they lose their authority.


This has enormous implications for the future of totalitarian societies, none of them good. The Internet is as essential to commerce and economic development as water and energy; no nation can just shut it off to protect its leaders from the public.


But the Internet empowers average citizens in a way unprecedented in human history – not simply by providing citizens the ability to organize on a massive scale, but also by exposing citizens to information about how the rest of the world lives.


A young Burmese man is far more capable of learning that there is nothing inevitable about the hideous repression he endures in his country. A Guatemalan can find out the truth about his country's government with a few quick clicks. And suddenly the happy talk coming from the local military dictator doesn't ring so true.


Staying in power has just gotten a lot harder for unpopular dictators.


Closer to home, control of information resides more in corporations than in the government. If General Electric opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, expect a barrage of anti-union propaganda on NBC outlets. But the advent and maturation of citizen-driven media has impacted many traditional elite media sources, many of which are now struggling financially.


Unfortunately, the traditional media outlets have responded by compromising their public credibility, as we've just now seen in The Washington Post's egregious scheme to allow lobbyists to buy their way to favorable media coverage. (And they have the nerve to complain about blogs.)


So, as established governments and corporately owned media sources struggle to remain relevant, we can expect a last-ditch backlash against citizen-driven media. This has been evident for some time – every President Barack Obama press conference has featured a subsequent media circus whining about the president's audacity in including mere bloggers in his briefings, and even calling on them! Meanwhile, we get 100 hours of Michael Jackson coverage in cable news, leaving the unimportant stuff like health care and Wall Street bailouts to puny bloggers. No wonder the old media is so defensive.


And there will probably be another offensive against net neutrality, which is what makes the Internet the closest thing to a meritocracy we have in our society, as it allows independent media to compete toe-to-toe with the big corporate boys. The attacks will probably be more cleverly packaged than the efforts of a couple of years ago, but they will likely run into the same unsuccessful result – citizens are much more savvy on this issue than they used to be.


The new media is here to stay. And established power structures can either adapt to it or compete by responding to the needs of the public, or they can, like the Iranian mullahs, try to brutally repress it – and lose anyway, eventually.


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