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‘We Knew Exactly Who We Had to Go Get’

December 10th, 2012 - 7:20 pm

Ever since, there has been great enthusiasm for the West to help freedom advocates from China and Myanmar to Iran, Libya, and Syria gain easy access to Internet networks.  This enthusiasm continues, as in this recent essay by Joel Brinkley, in which he argues that “tyrants fear social media more than anything.”

But, as often in warfare, there is a constant flow of advantage between offense and defense.  At first, the new media were clearly advantageous to the insurrectionaries, and the Iranian regime, for example, blocked communications when things got hot.  Internet was blocked, satellites were jammed, cell networks were shut down.  Then, the tyrants got smarter.  They learned to track down the users of the social media, with deadly results.  They soon knew who they had to go get.  One of the first pundits to figure this out was the thoughtful and often delightful Evgeny Morozov, who has waged a relentless campaign against the “cyber utopians” who believe that the new technologies will inevitably make us free.  In fact, Morozov pointed out, Bush,  Obama, Hillary and Condi were slow to realize that the very use of the technologies carried a risk of disclosure.  In the free West, we worry about governmental and corporate penetration of our privacy.   In the tyrannies, it’s often a matter of life and death.  Just ask the many Iranian bloggers facing death sentences in Tehran’s Evin prison.

At the moment, the tyrants are doing well.  A while back, a non-governmental Western organization turned on a cell phone in downtown Tehran, programmed to send out text messages designed to catch the attention of the security forces.  The cyber cops found the phone in a matter of minutes, an example of their profound concern and unusual efficiency.

Advocates of the “revolutionary media” insist that the numbers favor the insurrectionaries.  “The cats will be well fed, but the mice will win out in the end,” one of them likes to say.  Perhaps that is true, but if the mice decide they can’t safely talk to each other, the big cat wins, doesn’t she?

Paradoxically, some of the mice have reverted to ancient methods of communication.  I know people who use couriers to carry messages, both internationally and within countries.  Sometimes those messages aren’t even written down;  they’re memorized.  It’s slow, but it works.  Ray Bradbury understood this well, as have other science fiction and fantasy writers.  It may well be that as the technologies become ever more effective, and the rulers know more and more “who to go get,” their most dangerous opponents will communicate through ancient arts:  telling stories, singing ballads, and posting messages and broadsides in public and private places.

In revolutionary Rome in the eighteenth century, there were several “talking statues,” so called because dissidents would post calls to action on the torsos of the statues.  One of them, a short block from Piazza Navona, still serves this function.

Maybe we’ll see some of Washington’s many statues used this way in the future.  There’s a great Einstein in a small grove at the National Academy of Sciences that’s ideal, if you’re wondering where to start.

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