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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

In Praise of Iranian Patience (Guest Blog)

Back in the Cold War Decades, when Revolution was a game played by the $billion, and the main trick was to find people willing to die for some local cause that could be perverted into a chess pawn to be deployed opposite the similarly recruited pawns of the other superpower. Only rarely, as in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the U.S. deployment in Vietnam, did the superpowers make the mistake of placing their own soldiers as the designated enemy of such locally motivated and globally supplied insurgent revolutionary forces. The superpowers' own domestic populations could never accept the same level of casualties for "foreign adventures" as the locals would accept fighting for their own autonomy. For example, the Vietnamese General Jiap (multiple spellings) is reputed to have staged the first few encounters with US forces in order to systematically assess their firepower and reinforcement/air support timings, similar to tactics used against the British by Cetiwayo (multiple spellings), sending token attacks in a measured sacrifice to gain crucial information on an unknown enemy. His conclusion was that for as long as Vietnamese forces were only losing 10 men to every American they killed or incapacitated, they would win.

For the most part around the world during the Cold War decades, locals died in local causes fighting other locals, only the outcomes were changed as a result of practically unrelated global superpower agendas. As history has now taught us, these disputants found many nations post-WWII, in colonial and post-colonial Africa alike, to be fertile ground for exploitable conflicts. Combined with the relative indifference of their own populations to the resulting suffering of civilian African populations, where isolated pockets of attention would only be further exploited for propaganda purposes to fuel the home fires of nationalism and maintain astronomical rates of spending on giving substance to the myth of "Mutually Assured Destruction".

It was conceived by planners on both sides as a sort of slow-motion war of attrition, and it is now generally accepted that the Soviets broke under the strain first (I won't go so far as to say that anybody won much of anything, other than respite). Of course the extensive propaganda systems of both countries had to effectively declare victory for their respective countries' somehow, the Russians by adopting a fast-track privatisation policy which effectively transferred power from a political elite to an economic one (often the same individuals) and announcing that the People had Won "Democracy". Meanwhile the Americans declared a "Peace Dividend" and managed for a decade to ignore the fact that if they had really won, then they would have had to keep spending in order to consolidate and ultimately hold their "gains" like any other colonial power. Instead they held a big domestic party that created a lot of domestic jobs and various equity stock bubbles, and the media played up the idea that "now that capitalism won, you can all get rich," but as we have now seen in hindsight they were not well positioned for the actualities they would confront in the 21st century.

I would hope that with two seemingly unclosable military interventions currently raging in the region, the American voter would at last realize that the resistance provoked by invasion is counterproductive, and the fact that the US still has a massive military doesn't mean that it is actually useful to have one. The current circumstances in Iran, despite the desperate propaganda efforts of the ruling party there to shift blame to outsiders, is a fight between the various factions that kicked the outsiders out in the first place. All of the principle players on both sides have long, patriotic Iranian records, are well respected, and not a one of them would require any sort of disclaimer were the clerical theocracy behind them. None of them have been living in exile, none of them have any primary ties to any other nation besides Iran. What they have done is use the blogosphere, which repeatedly demonstrates that it is beyond control of any government (c'mon China, show us what you got!), in spite of what international corporations will do to earn a buck (looking at YOU Nokia-Siemens! You picked the wrong side in this fight. Your competitors have won my business by default. Ask DOW, we haven't forgotten Union Carbide and Bhopal!). Entertainment companies are spending a mint to try and contain bit-torrent direct linkage sites, mainly hosted in scandinavia due to local speech laws, what makes these fools think that they can stop samizdat tweets?

This goes for the oppressive measures too. A samizdat network is based on friendships, trusted individuals who communicate often. Each person may only communicate with two or three others, who in turn have a separate circle of two or three, which promulgates outward. This grew out of Soviet restrictions on how many non-family members could be in the same place at the same time without drawing conspiracy charges and being shipped to a Gulag for political incorrectness. It nevertheless was embraced by millions, and was capable of sharing news across half the globe in remarkably short periods of time, and with uncensorable penetration rates. That the government spies would inevitably report back the content of such messages is irrelevant, the point is that total propaganda systems break down when forced to react or counter external information sources. (They succeed wherever they can maintain virtually sole control over exposure to information on the part of the population to be controlled. This can be quite sophisticated, as with some religious "cult" organizations such as Lord's Resistance Army.)

Governments are faced with a choice, either to accept that the international blogosphere is now a force in setting the subjects and terms of discourse and in effect do their best to capture our loyalty, or to whine about how unfair it is for their country to be included in anyone's definition of "the World" when it would be so much more convenient if they could proceed without anyone looking, or to actively oppose and censor and fight what amounts to an international media machine larger than any single traditional press organ in the world. Twitter works because of hyperlinks. Of course the Iranian revolution is not being organized 140 characters at a time. But 140 is more than enough to trigger pre-arranged sequences, and plenty for high encryption even with intercept. This is why the Iranian government first tried jamming, and why the opposition is patient. Within a few days the government realized that shutting down electronic communication required shutting down trade, and the protesters would win that battle of attrition. They have now shifted to a trace and capture strategy, trying to pinpoint opinions by reviewing ALL electronic messaging, imprisoning and in some cases executing the alleged non-patriots, and hoping that fear will cow the rest (capability thanks to Nokia-Siemens, hoping donor governments who recently suspended health aid are paying non-hypocritical, but perhaps a bit of hippocratical attention).

What is frustrating this enforced propaganda aim is Iranian patience. Every night across the capital (hard to get regular news from anywhere else with the clampdown, but the samizdat messaging is getting through eventually), in small groups on rooftops the simple cry of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") echoes through urban canyons. Each person that disappears from a samizdat network slot is known, cared about, not expendible. They are reported missing, if they are in custody and this is revealed (as is common practice), then charges against them are demanded. People outside the networks see someone they care for hurt simply for communicating, and they talk to those they know and trust about their feelings and frustrations, and instantly the samizdat network has not only healed, but by the nature of the injury it has grown. All that is required is patience and the social nature of humans.

The modern blogosphere was not created for revolution, but sure, it is also very useful for such purposes. This is what happens with invention. Wilbur and Orville Wright offered the patent on the airplane to the US Government and William Howard Taft (the Sec. of Defense, later President) turned them down. They were forced to offer it to Russia and Germany and France instead, which in retrospect considering how they used it was not such a good thing for all concerned (except Siemens! Regretting helping Iranian Intelligence yet?). There is nothing inherently anti-government or anti-establishment about blogs or twitter or any communication technology, but there is something inherently democratic about such forms of communication. Therefore, if you are working for a government, and you perceive that you have a problem with some aspect of these modern communication systems, I would caution against anything but the most targeted, researched, variably phrased and otherwise thoroughly defensible press release you have ever made in your life. Boring is your friend, if you can't simply be friendly. The last thing you want is to get the spotlight as an "anti-blog" authority figure. The math is harder, but it is still democracy, and if you measure the fractal properly, there is nothing monolithic about it.

Convince, don't Censor.

(Guest Blogger)


  1. A delicious piece.I would love the honor of reading more of your writing and of corresponding with you.I am curious as to how you developed the particular polish of your style of thinking and expression.

  2. It will be interesting to see what the fall out is from today's "denial of service" attack on social networking sites, primarily Twitter, by one or both parties in the ongoing propaganda war between Russia and Georgia.

    According to the New York Times:

    Bill Woodcock, a research director of the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit technical organization that tracks Internet traffic, said Thursday’s attack was an extension of the conflict between Russia and Georgia. It was not clear who initiated the attack, he said, but likely “one side put up propaganda, the other side figured this out and is attacking them.”

    Instead of using a botnet, or a network of thousands of malware-infected personal computers to flood a site with traffic, Mr. Woodcock said this particular attack consisted of a wave of spam e-mail messages, which began infiltrating Twitter and other sites at 10:25 a.m. Eastern time. “It’s a vast increase in traffic that creates the denial-of-service,” he said.

    YouTube and LiveJournal were also affected, Mr. Woodcock said, although “Twitter was definitely hit the hardest.” YouTube said it had not noticed any problems with its service.

  3. Yakima,

    What I find particularly fascinating is the slightly uni-directional nature of news in the internet age..

    Without doubt...bad spreads faster than good news...

    This means that it is almost certain that when the damage is done (e.g. the current persecution of Kabwela) it is likely to be significant, but repairing it is infinitely hard..due to how information circulates...

    We saw this particularly in the USA elections with youtube. Recently we saw the "monkey incident" with RB....he later joked and tried to repair the damage done by the monkey but no one took was just not interesting to Twitter that "RB joked about the monkey".


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