Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wired World

In the last quarter-century or so, and particularly in the last ten years, computer technology has transformed politics tremendously at the international, national, and local levels. The past few months have demonstrated what computer technology is doing on the international level. In today’s (17-06-09) New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st century conflict,” by which he meant that computer technology is at the heart of the conflict. Every website in Iran became a potential pocket of resistance to the authoritarian government, as did every “twitter” that was sent over the internet, so the government of Iran started blocking websites used by dissidents. Not to be outsmarted, or out-interneted, the dissidents resorted to a free software program developed for dissidents in China, called Freegate, which is small enough to be carried on a flash drive. “Have flash drive, will surf!” could be the motto of these pesky Paladins. With Freegate, a dissident can connect to a server outside China that changes the I.P. address constantly, so the government can’t block it. Messages sent on Freegate can be encrypted and the message easily deleted from the computer on which it was sent.

Guns are a much older form of technology, and in the streets guns trump computers. But streets are not where the conflict between dissidents and governments are ultimately decided, not any more at least. Conflicts are decided one way or another in the hearts and minds of people, and governments and the news media no longer have a monopoly on deciding what constitutes news. Bloggers have helped break that monopoly, and any one of the millions of Americans who own a cell phone camera can scoop the main stream media and the professional journalist. A decisive moment in the Virginia contest for governor occurred when candidate George Allen at a small gathering in a rural setting referred to someone filming the event by a racial slur, calling him a “macaca,” meaning a person of Indian or Pakistani descent. Allen made other serious mistakes, but that one recorded blunder quickly circulated in the blogosphere and was considered to have been the straw that broke the back of his campaign. The internet was crucial to Obama’s campaign for the presidency, making it possible for him to come from far behind to overtake Hillary Clinton and other frontrunners, and then go on to defeat McCain in the general election. The internet, like sex, favors the young, and in no one area did McCain show his age to more disadvantage than in his computer illiteracy. When he admitted he was computer illiterate and that he did not use email, he reinforced the impression, especially among the young, that he was out of touch with the times, lagging behind even most ten-year-olds and perhaps some dogs. In a New Yorker cartoon, one dog, at a computer, says to another dog, “The nice thing about a computer is that no one knows you’re a dog.” Though McCain reportedly owned fourteen dogs, it is unlikely any of them were computer literate. You can’t teach an old dog new technology.


As I pointed out in one of my very first River Vices blogs, back in 2004, and I have repeated in other postings since, local politics have been transformed profoundly by the internet and the blogosphere. Back in 1980, the small clique who controlled Portsmouth politically and economically were able to drive three councilmen from office through a concerted media campaign that involved local radio stations, the Portsmouth Daily Times and local clergy, no less. If the small clique who now control Portsmouth ever look back nostalgically, it would be to that 1980 campaign, with its parades, speeches, and vilification of the councilmen for maliciously standing in the way of progress, by which was meant a new downtown mall. There were concerned citizens in Portsmouth back then, but what did they have to fight back were pathetically few: mimeographed flyers, telephones, and letters to the editor, which may or may not have been printed, and if they were printed probably would be censored, because no criticism of prominent people by name was allowed. That policy still prevails at the Portsmouth Daily Times, but fortunately computer technology and cell phones make it possible for concerned citizens to communicate instantly with hundreds and thousands of people in the local area.

As president of the Shawnee Education Association (SEA), at Shawnee State University, I revived SEA-VIEW, the faculty union newsletter, and, with Jim Flavin, made it available on hard copy and online at the university. But it was the students at SSU who inaugurated a new era in Portsmouth journalism when they published the first paper edition of the Shawnee Sentinel, in 1994; and when they expanded news coverage beyond the university and put the Sentinel online its readership and its influence multiplied exponentially. When Dr. Clive Veri was president and attorney Steve Donohue was Vice President of Practically Everything at SSU they tried to prevent the students from circulating the Shawnee Sentinel on campus, just as the government in Iran and China are trying to clamp down on bloggers and tweeters, but when the Sentinel went online the genie was out of the bottle.

Stifling Bloggers

Still, attempts were made in city government to stifle bloggers and the Shawnee Sentinel in particular. I heard that at one time city employees were told they should not read the Sentinel on city computers, and Portsmouth Police Chief Charles Horner publicly denounced local websites, labeling those who write for them “domestic terrorists,” and he did what he could to restrict what councilman Bob Mollette could post on his website. Along with Bob’s wife Teresa, who has a public information website, the Mollettes used their technological knowhow to clean up the corruption and cronyism. I would not be surprised to learn someday someone is writing a dissertation on the influence of the computer technology on local governments focusing on the the Mollettes as an example of the best of American citizens, a couple willing to spend many thousands of hours and dollars to make local government more responsive to the people.

The semi-official line of the small clique who control Portsmouth, a line parroted by their hirelings in the media, is that there is a small clique of intractable individuals who are making it impossible for the city to move forward with such projects as the renovation of the Marting building. Since it takes a majority to win any election, and since the Marting building has been turned down decisively several times by voters, and since other proposals have been passed that the clique disapproves of and campaigned against how can a small clique be responsible for impeding progress, unless it is the small clique of lawyers and developers who have a stranglehold on the city? It is a majority of the voters of Portsmouth who are opposed to the corrupt clique, a majority who are computer literate and who know better than to believe everything they read on the editorial pages of the Portsmouth Daily Times or hear from Steve Hayes on WXNT. There was a time when the people of Portsmouth had no other source for local news, when they could be manipulated and brainwashed by those who controlled the media, but those days have come to an end in our city, just as we hope they will in Iran and China. Internationally, nationally, and locally, technology has liberated people from ignorance, rescued them from isolation, and united them in the cause of truth and justice. Through wireless communications, the whole world is wired.

I will stop now. My cell phone with a megapixel camera is ringing and my computer is tweeting.