[iDC] Iran & the "Twitter Revolution"

David Golumbia dgolumbia at virginia.edu
Thu Jun 25 14:23:16 UTC 2009

I was just asked to post this on the Harvard UP blog, and hope some will 
find it relevant to the current conversations:


      "Revolutions" and the Politics of Networks

/... with special reference to the role played by the internet during 
the recent developments in Iran./


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" 
<http://www.buzzmachine.com/2009/06/17/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 
<http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/GOLCUL.html>*/, 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 
<http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124562668777335653.html> 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.

David Golumbia
Assistant Professor
Media Studies, English, and Linguistics
University of Virginia

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