The truth will be digitized.
Last week, I went to the 140 Characters Conference here in New York. There, hundreds of people met to explore how Twitter, new media, and micro-blogging are disrupting life these days. People were asking important questions of all this new technology: What do we get out of it? Is it changing anything that matters in any interesting way? Where’s it going? What does it mean?
The conference couldn’t have been more timely, though this was completely an accident of fate: On the very days of the meeting, June 16 and 17, the Iranian people were using Twitter, cell phones, and other inventions to coordinate and narrate a national uprising to protest the (allegedly) fraudulent results of the recent presidential elections. The story is available only over the internet, because Iranian control of the press and media have made it impossible for regular journalists to cover the events on the ground. Thus we turn to Twitter and bloggers to understand what’s going on. Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney is singularly inserting himself into the moment by providing the only comprehensive, live blog of the event.
These are the largest and most disruptive public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when masses of Iranians overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran. The Iranian Revolution was one of the few documented true revolutions (to use a political science term!), in which the structure of society itself, and not merely the regime, was changed in a rapid convulsion of political will.
Something similar might be happening today.
The events of 1979 have an interesting parallel to the present, for the earlier Revolution was spurred along by the innovative application of a radical new technology that not only subverted the regime but also fit neatly into the lifestyles and habits of regular Iranians. The new technology was accessible to everyone, regardless of education, age, gender, or geographical location. I am referring, of course, to cassette tape recordings, which in the 1970s took the entire world on a quantum leap of do-it-yourself cultural production, re-production, and mashing-up.
In the West, this took the form of the mix tape. We used the songs of our favorite bands to declare love or war, to apologize for insensitivity, to make a stand, break up, explain any of the preceding, or simply state the case for plain, animal lust. The truly radical could even place Yes, The Clash, and Air Supply on the same tape, just to make a point. The mix tape reached its all-time high with Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, in the mid-1990s, which was later immortalized on the silver screen with John Cusak at the very moment in time when the cassette tape itself was tossed into the dustbin of history by the arrival mix-CDs, MP3 playlists, and (a few years later) the iPod.
At the same time that mix tapes reshaped the possibilities for personal expression in the West, Iranians were gathering in private, often hidden, rooms to listen to cassette tapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who was exiled from Iran in 1964. Khomeini took refuge first in Iraq, which has a large (majority) population of Shiite Muslims, and later in France. His sermons were smuggled into Iran, where they met a large audience, hungry for his words.
Khomeini’s message was both religious and social. He married basic Islamic piety to a consciousness of poverty, economic injustice, and outrage at the atrocities of the Shah’s violently repressive state. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was deeply tied to Islam’s notions of charity and essential human equality (not the same as “freedom” in any Western sense), tenets of belief that the Shah’s regime violated so openly and egregiously. Cassette recordings overcame the literacy barrier and brought this message to wide audiences that might have missed him had he been restricted to paper texts and photocopies. Cassette tapes were the samizdat of the Islamic world in the 1970s. Anyone could listen.
Cassette tapes allowed the Iranian opposition to gather, communicate, and plan for a better day. When that day came, in the heady rebellion of 1978-79, it seemed as if the world exploded, just like it did this week as Iran commanded center stage everywhere. It’s no small coincidence, it might be added, that some of the chief protagonists of the present turmoil – Ayatollah Montazeri, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Hashemi Rafsanhani – were there in 1979, in similar roles, only as much younger people.
So Twitter brings us full circle, from cyber space and cell phones – whose ubiquitous flip-top form bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Star Trek Communicator – back to cassette tapes. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once noted.
Today, Twitter and cell phone videos are our cassette tapes of Iranian change, bringing us the haunting images of people shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night, just like they did in 1979. Then, as now, regular people sang the traditional Muslim declaration, “God is great,” to indict the regime in power.
That’s the original cultural source of change in Iran.
This is the first of 3 postings on “The truth and Twitter.” More to come…
Opening photo: www.life.com/image/ugc1002722/in-gallery/28782/eyewitness-from-tehrans-streets. LIFE has several dramatic series of photographs from the current events; other photographs are here. Looking at these photos, I can feel, in my bones, what “history” means.