Freedom and Fact of Speech (or, Maybe This Is Facebook vs. The Man)
June 21, 2009
Test of new era: clustered riot police having rendered physically mass politics impossible, ‘cloud’ politics succeeds
There’s been a great deal said about the Internet’s role in the events in Iran, but James’s remark put me in mind of something I’ve been mulling for the last couple weeks. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the wake of the Iraq war, it was how limited parts of the Islamic world’s experience and expectations for democratic institutions is. You can topple the dictator, set up a representative government, have elections, and still, there will be people ready to use guns and ethnic allegiances to subvert the process. Looking at nations like Iran (either before or after the protests) we see a similar picture; suppression of the press is just part and parcel of daily political life, especially in the midst of civil unrest. No army or institutional tweaking can resolve that fact; it’s just how elites operate, and how things get done.
And if we were living twenty years ago, that would more or less be it. What we’re seeing in Iran, though, is that the Internet is creating a new set of questions running parallel to the old ones. Freedom of speech originally set out to address the fact that speech could be restricted effectively for political ends. This premise, at least in Iran’s case, clearly isn’t holding any more. It’s guaranteed, eventually, that we will see the public violence of this regime, often in graphic detail. The question of whether the press is free is in some point moot: the Internet has replaced the freedom of speech with the fact of speech, which now confronts any regime with some measure of technological penetration and a sufficiently unsettled populace.
Many have made the observation that the Internet is a technological crystallization of free, even anarchic, speech, albeit one framed by its own internally imposed limits and one that can be manipulated in new and potentially frightening ways. There’s definitely something to this, though the Internet’s equally strong tendency towards segmented discourse makes me hesitant to embrace too Habermasian a reading of the thing. But that said, there’s still something very powerful in the notion of speech existing as a machine, rather than as a pure right, or an act, or a event. Suddenly its not, hey, you’re taking my rights (towards which everyone may or may not have positive feelings), its hey, you’re taking my computer (give it back fascist bastard!). And the fact that that speech machine has become vital for any country’s functioning introduces a whole new dynamic to dictatorship: if you want control, you must either never give an opportunity for nation-wide unrest (roughly the Chinese approach) or you must remove info-technology completely (the North Korean approach.) It’s strikes me that the Iranian regime will be/is now stuck between its inability to maintain the first option and the inevitability of the second. Which will be a very hard, maybe impossibly hard, pill for the Iranian people to swallow.