July 25, 2009

gutenberg and the geeks

And the geeks shall set them free.


Heretofore geeky Internet Protocol (IP) networks and services are now at ground zero in the transforming world. The U.S. State Department’s request that Twitter reschedule a planned 90 minute “critical network upgrade” focused attention on the microblogging that keeps Iranian protesters connected to each other and the outside world. The Iranian government’s response to shut down at various times the mobile network, texting capabilities, and access to Internet sites reinforces the power of the new technology.

It is not a new story. The struggle between those with power and those with new information technology is as old as print on the page.

Gutenberg’s movable type created a 15th century information revolution that fueled the Reformation and remade Europe. Today’s “Twitter Revolution” is simply the latest installment in the 600 year history of using new information technology to bypass the controls of power.

The printing press enabled revolutionaries such as Martin Luther. Without the inexpensive information dispersal capabilities of ink on paper Luther’s 95 Theses would have weathered and yellowed on the Wittenberg church door. The same is holding true today in Iran. If information flowed only through government-controlled media the streets would be empty and the world ignorant.

Twitter, text messaging, Facebook and YouTube are the printing presses of the IP era, giving voice to those who previously lacked a podium. In Iran, which once considered the death penalty for dissenting bloggers, the new technology is both a Speakers’ Corner of open expression, an organizing tool, and a new media outlet.

When I went to my Twitter account while writing this I found the following postings, all seconds old:

From a Twitter account attributed to MirHoussein Mousavi, the allegedly defeated candidate for president of Iran, “I am prepared For [sic] martyrdom, go on strike if I am arrested.”

“We’ve been beatn, torturd & killd for the last 30 years nothing the supreme liar says now can break our will for freedom!” tweeted user EnghelabeAzadi. [All spelling in original]

From Twitterer rosa_rugosa, “RT [retweet] from Iran: Situation is intensifying and becoming more dangerous and violent, we have to stand together and not give in.”

While the new technology helps coordinate activities inside Iran, spreading the message beyond the borders is perhaps its greatest contribution. Reading real time tweets from Tehran is a surreal experience that transports the reader into the moment. When I told my wife about the Mousavi statement she responded, “Yes, I heard that this afternoon on NPR.” But I knew it just 10 seconds after it happened! Seeing such a development in real time made me a participant, not just an observer.

It’s not just Twitter that is getting the message out; the BBC’s Persian-language television channel reported receiving up to five videos a minute, shot digitally on the streets of Tehran and uploaded via the Internet. With more camera phones than traditional cameras in the world everyone becomes a reporter. This takes on even greater significance when, as is being done in Iran, the government confines reporters to their offices and cancels their visas.

As the Iranian government tries to shut down the new technology they are merely mimicking what was tried without success six centuries earlier.

The first person to bring Gutenberg Bibles into Paris was threatened with burning at the stake. Freeing the Word from its cloisters threatened the Church’s control. The powers-that-be therefore declared the ability to produce exact copies was Satanic. It worked for a while – Gutenberg’s salesman packed up his Bibles and fled for his life – but as print shops sprung up throughout Europe it was impossible to stop the escape of information from its Establishment confines. The Mullahs need to study history; responding to the IP revolution as an echo of the Church’s effort to shut down the printing press is doomed to repeat the precedent.

Knowledge creeps through the cracks. In the Gutenberg-Luther era such information liberation was a slow but inexorable process. In the digital age squeaking through one crack fires up a waiting ecosystem that resumes the dissemination. As soon as the Iranian government shut down access to the servers that were providing anti-government messages proxy servers appeared to provide another route for the restricted information. When denial of service attacks tried to bring down those proxies even newer proxies sprung forth. The existence and addresses of these new outlets, of course, was distributed by text message and Twitter.

Information powers revolutions. Tom Paine used Gutenberg’s technology to rally colonists to the American Revolution. During the Cold War fax machines were smuggled into the Soviet Union to coordinate resistance efforts. A single text message started demonstrations that brought down the Philippine government in 2001. Last April text and Twitter organized opposition to another allegedly stolen election in Moldova.

In Iran today wireless access and the Internet are proving to be an unstoppable duo. The information paradigm that Gutenberg began 600 years ago is now in the hands of the IP geeks.