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The Internet and revolution


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 06/25/2009


It is too early to know if what is now going on in Iran is actually the start of a revolution in that country. Much of the western media and many commentators seem to think (or, maybe, hope) that is the case. 


Many of these news folk and commentators are pointing to Twitter as a primary enabler of the current unrest. A number of the commentators have also mentioned the title and refrain of Gil Scott-Heron's spoken song "the revolution will not be televised" as if this phrase somehow explains what is going on. It does not appear that these commentators have bothered to read the lyrics or tried to understand what the piece was all about.


The song title sprang to my mind when I started reading all the stories about the impact of Twitter on the Iranian situation. While Googling for the lyrics I noticed I was far from the only one who has made the same connection. But does the connection actually hold?


The concept of the "Internet revolution" is not generally applied to the Internet as an enabler of revolutions other than in technology.


But it clearly has been in some cases


But is it fair to say that the Internet is the primary enabler of what is going on in Iran? Clearly it is an important factor, not just Twitter but also Facebook, My Space and the other social networking sites. But, just as clearly, the fact that cell phones are now nearly ubiquitous has also been a factor.


What about Scott-Heron's work? Does it fit here? I think it does but not in the way that most commentators assume. The key is not television. The Iranian is being played out on all of the television news channels. Mostly pathetically -- the newscasters are reduced to reading tweets and e-mail from people they do not know -- over and over again.


Scott-Heron was not saying that the revolution would not be on TV.


He was saying that the revolution would not be packaged and polished the way that television tends to do. There are "highlights on the 11 o'clock news," which Scott-Heron said would not be the case -- but that is not the only news we can get. The last two lines of the work summarize the message: "The revolution will no re-run bothers; The revolution will be live." Whatever is going on in Iran we are seeing and hearing about it live -- over the Internet and on the TV news channels, which seem to mostly forward information from the Internet.


Scott-Heron was also saying that the revolution would be participatory -- "you will not be able to stay at home, brother." Outside of Iran this event, revolution or not, is mostly voyeuristic rather than participatory. It seems that the situation is different within Iran -- the surreptiously transmitted pictures and videos show masses of people directly involved.


At this point it does appear that the Internet is making it much harder for the current Iranian government to restrict what the rest of the world, and what their own citizens, know about what is going on. That may wind up facilitating a revolution or just frustrating those that would like to see one.


Disclaimer: Harvard is more often a chronicler of social revolutions that an enabler of them and I have not heard a university opinion on the role of Internet technology in this case so the above song review is my own.


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