First published on Harvard University Press blog, Jun 24 2009.
Few words have been heard more often lately than revolution. The word occurs in two ways, but the connection between them is at best fuzzy. First, commentators wonder if Iran is going through a political revolution. Second, they speculate about an “internet revolution”—not merely a change in communications technologies, but something more significant for democracy, for political organization.
Jeff Jarvis calls it “the API revolution” (referring to the ability, via software called an API, to for third-parties to “use” other applications—for mobile phone providers, for example, to route messages onto Twitter). Clay Shirky calls it “the big one”:
… this is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.
When Shirky said this it was still plausible that the revolution in Iran would “take.” It didn’t. And what Shirky says about the benefits of “the big one” are odd: “people … are engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on messages to their friends.” I am absolutely positive that these have been critical aspects of every political revolution, regardless of technology. So what does Twitter change? “The whole world is watching.” Well, we outside Iran can watch in much more detail than we could before. But since when is external observation an important part of revolution? It can help. But “we” have watched many failed revolutions from the outside. Does “our” knowing more of the details of the failure really change the situation?
At the very least, the failure of the Iranian revolution shows that the thesis that “network openness” leads automatically or directly to democracy is false—we have plenty of network openness, we keep celebrating it, and yet all we saw in practice was a near-revolution very similar to hundreds we have seen in the past. Other than the evidence we see on computer screens—other than the Twitter feeds and Neda YouTube videos—what actually changed in the process of or progress toward revolution in any substantive fashion?
The point I hope to make here, and one that I make at greater length in my book The Cultural Logic of Computation, is that so many of our commentators appear to live in a world where the equation between positive political change and network openness, or technological evolution, is so obvious as to be transparent. The hidden and most dangerous underside of this is that the only politics such people want most to examine are the liberatory potentials they have already decided are there.
As Chris Rhoads and Loretta Chao discuss in an article this week in the Wall Street Journal, though—raising issues that are well known to those of us who pay close attention to what governments and businesses do with computer networks—the fact is that the Iranian government is using the network to surveil its citizens, to anticipate their plans, to identify dissidents, and to counter them. In an interview on NPR, Rhoads explained what seems never to occur to the techno-evangelists: Iran has kept the internet open because it provides them with much richer information to spy on its citizens.
I am not suggesting and not hoping that we see a new generation of Clay Shirkys and Jeff Jarvises who blog exclusively about the advent of a new, real Big Brother. But there is a reason that it was a former Bush national security advisor who suggested, amidst the revolution-that-failed, that the Twitter developers deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, when in fact Twitter is being used to control and monitor dissidence. We have to find a way to explore in a sober way the political consequences of all parts of the computerization of the world, whether they fit or do not fit with our own hopes, and even to resist those parts of computerization that ultimately do not serve democratic ends.