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Toppling Tyrants With Technology
Alex Steffen, 14 May 04

Emily over at SmartMobs tips us off to this Francis Chin take on how technology is making life harder for dictators, despots and Republican presidents, ideas Jamais ably tackled in his post The Participatory Panopticon vs. the Pentagon:

"Global outrage over digital photographs ... of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners is the latest example of how technology, in the hands of ordinary folk, creates a kind of information tsunami that shakes up the powerful and the mighty.

"The sheer convenience and speed of taking photos with an idiot-proof digital camera or a camera phone, and then sharing them via the Internet with the rest of the world, has given a new meaning to the word "transparency". With a press of a button and the click of a computer mouse, dark corners are now brightly illuminated. There is, literally, no place to hide."

"...[T]he Shah of Iran was overthrown in the late 1970s by another IT invention — the audio cassette tape. His chief opponent was the cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, then an exile in Paris who recorded incendiary Friday sermons on cassettes and smuggled them into Iran. The tapes were replayed in countless places away from the ears the Shah's secret police.

"The next IT tool with a similar seismic effect was the fax machine. It was 1989 and Chinese students and pro-democracy activists were organising one of the largest demonstrations in Tiananmen, Beijing, to protest against official corruption and to demand a regime change. The word was spread discretely through the fax machine.

"More successful was the use of cellphone text messaging on the streets of Manila to oust President Joseph Estrada in 2000. ... At only one peso per message, it was far cheaper than making a phone call. Like the fax machine, it was used to organise crowd convergence and crowd movement, except the cellphone was more mobile and easier to handle.

"If cellphones had been available during the Tiananmen protest, the crowd would have been larger and would have included workers and even soldiers, not Beijing university students. The news and pro-democracy messages could have been "texted" to the troops at key garrisons to persuade them to change sides. In both the Iranian and Philippine revolutions, it was the elite elements in the army who changed sides and tipped the balance. ...

"[T]echnology, in the form of cheap, hand-held devices capable of recording and transmitting raw, unvarnished information, is a powerful weapon for any man [sic] on the street to create awareness, fight untruths and persuade enough of people to change sides.

"This is what the revolution is all about..."

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Sterling has an excellent bit about "information munitions" - little cameras with cryptographic signatures and GPS to verify time and place an image was created at, and audit trails on image modification.

It's interesting that, even without all that, a camera phone can still rock the world.

Posted by: Vinay on 14 May 04

In what way is Bush a tyrant? Has he called off the election in November? Is he starving the population of Chicago? Has he gassed the population of Seattle? He is threatening the US olympic team with torture if they do not get enough medals?

Posted by: Anthony on 15 May 04

Agreed, imprisoning only two of your citizens without trial for years at a time doesn't seem like much... but it's enough to make a lot of people (including me) mighty uncomfortable.

Ditto the concerted attack on geneva convention rights and the opening of "legal black holes" into which foreigners can be dropped.

Posted by: Vinay on 15 May 04

Well, I was just doing some gentle ribbing, but since you ask:

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 May 04

At first I was astonished at the incredible stupidity of the pictures. Why take these pictures!? Until I read about it: Taking pictures is part of the torture. It adds humiliation. It gives the authorities a way to blackmail the people they release: "If you leak the info or if you stop cooperating, we will send these pictures to the father of your loving wife!"

The pictures of the Iraq prison abuse are not part of increased transparency: Whistleblowers publishing the gory details of torture. The pictures are part of the torture.

So while I agree that there is lots of *potential* out there, "American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners" is *no* example of the power of digital cameras in the hands of ordinary human beings.

As sad as it is.

Posted by: Alex Schröder on 18 May 04



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