Monday, December 20, 2004

Internet Panopticon

I hate to fall into the trap of utopoia/dystopia binary that has for the most part characterized "cyber studies." After all, it is my interest in the productive potentials of computer mediated communications, such as weblogs, that makes me spend the rest of my graduate student life (and perhaps beyond) studying weblogistan. But, let me burst a little bubble here. Last week, at the Internet and Society 2004 Conference at Harvard, I noticed that many people eagerly talked about the utopian mission of taking democracy to far away places... Iran seemed to be a prime example. Well, actually, the South Korean OhMyNews -with columnists such as Howard Rheingold, the Internet enthusiast who is famous for his book, Virtual Communities- won the implicit popularity contest in the "Global Voices" section of the conference. But, Farsi blogs and their democratic potentials did not cease to be mentioned over and over again, in almost every session. The confetti thrown into the air in this happy union of Internet geeks, investors, and politicians? Totalitarianism vs. American democracy; The free "we" in the U.S. vs. the censored "them," there. Well, read today's NY Times article and the bubble may get a bit deflated:http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/20/technology/20covert.html?th. Although internet surveillance is nothing new, with all the talk about increasing security, we are all in for a free national colonoscopy! Was I being rude? I'm sorry. But, what else can be a better metaphor for the way our daily diet is saturated with highly manipulated notions of "democracy" and "freedom"? And aren't we told that"terrorism" is the cancerous side effect of this healthy diet? And hence the need for colonoscopy, dear farangopolitans!
----post-script: And yes... then there is Cornell University's national poll about restricting the civil liberties of Muslims. I guess we should not complain. The greatness of U.S. multiculturalism guarantees that the colonoscopy shall be done with proper Islamic codes and in culturally sensitive ways!
----P.P.S. An anonymous reader has left a comment, to which I have replied in the comments section. Since I don't have her/his email, I am hoping s/he will read my response here:
"I am a bit confused about your point. Are you implying that I am comparing Iran and the U.S., and thus reifying binary oppositions, or are you suggesting that one needs to mention Iran, as being run by a government that curtails civil liberties, when writing a critique of the U.S.? If you are saying the former, I don't think I have created a binary. I have pointed to the way discussions about freedom and democracy in conferences such as Bits and Bytes are constructed vis-à-vis narratives of repression in places such as Iran, thereby operating on binary oppositions. If your point is to remind me of the latter, let me clarify: There is no doubt in my mind that many civil liberties are curtailed in Iran. However, I think we need to point out that freedom in the U.S. has its limitations (and the NY Times article is only one minor example of US government's increasing level of surveillance). If you don't believe that the civil liberties of Muslims are being curtailed in the U.S., just look at the news and you will find plenty of examples of people being fired from their jobs, travelers being subjected to humiliating searches in U.S. airports, and students being denied enrollment in certain fields, all in the name of posing the "threat of terrorist activitiy." By the way, "I hate..." is a figure of speech. I don't think any of us is capable of escaping these binaries, as we are implicated in them. Shifting? Perhaps. But escaping the fall, I am afraid not. "
Let me add here that my point is not to compare Iran and the U.S. , but to pay attention to the emptiness of hegemonic discourses such as "freedom" and "democracy" that have historically legitimized violence, here in the U.S., and elsewhere. Have we already forgotten the way that "freedom" was resignified in a violent occupation that came to be named "Iraqi Freedom?" Need I say more?


The sidebar image is taken from Mahmoud Pakzad's "Old Tehran", Did Publishers, 1994. Thanks to Jahanshah Javid (www.iranian.com) for sharing it.

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