I was in New York this week, speaking at a major music conference, which occasioned a couple of taxi rides through Manhattan. The driver for one of them was a Persian man who had fled Iran some years ago to escape the regime. Although he professed to be a Muslim, he blamed fundamentalist Islam for pretty much all of his country’s woes. He understood the difficulty of foreign intervention into Iranian affairs, but one thing he wanted America to provide his countrymen was unfettered access to information via the internet.
Our conversation, which was largely one-sided — this guy really wanted to talk — kicked off with his asking me if I had any new updates on Libya. I told him I’d been preoccupied, but would be happy to check on my mobile. But then he just kept talking. About how every family in Iran had been impacted by the fundamentalist state. About how he lost his father in the Islamic revolution of 1979. About how his brother was executed in an attempt to flee to Turkey. About how Iranian society is remarkably well-educated and sophisticated, and utterly fed up with their backwards and repressive political leadership. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “All of my family is Muslim. But there is nothing more oppressive to us in Iran than Islam. Why is it I should be killed for reading newspaper? For talking to American? It is poison to our country for 32 years, and we are sick of it.”
He expressed tremendous anxiety about recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, because in his view, those countries do not have strong secular institutions. His fear is that what happened in Iran in 1979 could happen in these nations — a disastrous outcome for the region’s Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and everyone in between. I asked him if he felt that it was possible for Iran to displace its own leadership and become an example of what a progressive Middle Eastern democracy might look like. He said that he’d like nothing more. In his Iran, Persians, Muslims, Christians and Jews would be free to practice their respective faiths, so long as they didn’t “strap bombs to themselves or act crazy in the streets.” He also noted that any display of religious orientation “should be kept out of government.” I’d like it if we observed that dictate here.
Naturally, he was wary of American intervention in Iranian affairs, a distrust shared by many of his countrymen. This stems largely from the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert operations to overthrow Iran’s government in 1953 to prevent the privatization of its oil resources. Our subsequent propping up of the Shah and his secret police didn’t help matters much. “We don’t care about spies, or bombs or F-16s or laser missiles,” my driver told me. “We say to America: give us internet. Give us New York Times.”
I was previously inclined to think that US fascination with the democratic power of the web was a lot of hot air. After all, the internet can easily be used as a tool for oppression as well as liberation. (See our previous article on the FreedomBox for one possible solution to the problem of centralized networked communications.) But after this cabbie’s passionate and repeated call for informational freedom, I began to understand what a fundamental necessity the internet is to civic and social well-being.
Web guru Clay Shirky has an article in this month’s Foreign Affairs called “The Political Power of Social Media” where he examines the enhanced possibilities of collective action in our networked age, and what this means for political change. (You can see an excerpt here.) There’s certainly a fair amount of administration support for internet freedom abroad, as evidenced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s recent speeches about US promotion of the internet in countries where such access is restricted. Shirky finds this vision flawed, calling it “politically appealing, action oriented and almost certainly wrong.” Why? Because it “overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination.” Additionally, such an approach “overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.” (It’s important to remember that overseas, not all mobile phones are “smart.”)
This isn’t what my cab driver was telling me, however. In a nation where access to any information that isn’t state-sponsored propaganda is limited, basic knowledge of the world in which you live becomes incredibly precious. Whether such access would help to undermine the Iranian regime is uncertain. Yet I had no choice but to take the guy’s plea at face value.
Malcom Gladwell recently had an infuriating piece in The New Yorker, in which he downplayed social media’s impact on national politics. Certainly there is the danger that oppressive foreign governments can, and do, use these same tools to suppress opposition. In America we don’t have that problem (yet). What we do have, in Gladwell’s view, is what he calls “slacktivism,” in which people assume the posture of social change by simply hitting “like” on Facebook or retweeting a link that they didn’t actually bother to read. That’s all fine and good, but it ignores the historic impact of tools used for information dissemination. Is anyone gonna tell me that Karl Rove wasn’t a master of mobilization through direct mail? That the Selma lunch counter protests weren’t aided by the existence of the telephone?
Regardless of how you feel about the massive aggregation/centralization of information through single platforms like Twitter and Facebook (I think it’s dangerous, particularly abroad), there’s little doubt that networked technologies are a net positive in terms of civic awareness and organization. In fact, I wanted to bring my cabbie back to DC and drop him off at the State Department so he could share his views with them. While I remain skeptical about wide-scale American initiatives to promote internet freedom, I do believe that strategic, targeted efforts could make a difference in key parts of the world. I can only hope Iran is on the list.