Sunday 16 May 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

'The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.'
'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' by Gil Scott-Heron

No, Gil, you're wrong. The revolution will not only be televised but it will also be brought to you live by the twittering classes, with later re-runs on youtube, showing it wearing its dirty underwear on its head and giving two fingers to the status quo. The revolution will then go off to update its profile on facebook.

The revolution, Gil, will be hard to control.

Will? Did I just write 'will'? No, make that 'has been hard to control'.

The advent of the internet narrowed traditionally geographical boundaries whilst widening the margins of democratic discourse. The appearance on the horizon of social networking sites in the last five or six years has made this conversation even more fluid and immediate (even if that urgency sometimes does more harm than good). The benefits this online revolution has brought are manifold. If not, ask The Guardian, a British newspaper which saw its journalistic integrity under threat last October by the oil trading company Transfigura. The corporation had banned the media outlet from reporting a question asked by the Labour MP Paul Ferrelly about Transfigura's injunction on the publication of a report that alleged the company had commissioned the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Within minutes of the news filtering through, Twitter was flooded with messages condemning Transfigura and demanding that the gagging order against The Guardian be lifted. The newspaper won. Revolution 1, Status Quo 0, Gil.

When Jan Moir, a columnist at that rabid tabloid they still call newspaper and which normally goes under the name of Daily Mail, poured scorn and bile on the still warm body of Stephen Gately for his lifestyle (ex-member of boyband Boyzone and who happened to be gay), the Twitterati rose as one and inundated the Daily Mail with complaints forcing Jan to write a half-hearted apology. Online Revolution 2, Status Quo 0.

But away from the - sometimes - comfortable world of western politics, and into the realm of totalitarian regimes, we see that the digital revolution I've so much eulogised above, is a murkier issue. This is a world full of ups and downs where writing a post disagreeing with the government can cost someone his or her freedom or even their life. We saw it with the Burmese monks challenging the junta with digi-cams a couple of years ago. We witnessed it again with the fracas between the Mukhabarat government in Egypt and activists. And who can forget the most famous photograph in the last twelve months? That of Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian woman whose bloodied face became the biggest indictment of Ayatollah Ali ­Khamenei's regime. Within minutes of her murder, the image had gone viral and various media outlets around the world reproduced it, thus making the public aware of what was happening on the streets of Tehran.

This cyber-dissent is welcome news. It shows that from Russia to Cuba a new community has been active in the last lustrum. Flash mobs, which started life as juvenile pranks (I saw one at Liverpool Street station many years ago and it was hilarious, it was a gigantic dance wave), have evolved into peaceful insurgency acts. Gandhi would have been proud. Social networking sites have become cheap tools of communication. And since video gadgets are ubiquitous (on mobiles, mp3s, iPods), bloody crackdowns by government forces are not as frequent as before. Also, new technology enthuses people who would often not want to get involved in politics. Call it peer pressure, but of the facebook variety.

Yet, these advantages must be equally measured against the disadvantages. Totalitarian regimes have become quite adept at second-guessing its opponents. Last year Yoani Sánchez, the highest-profile Cuban blogger, still living in Cuba, was beaten by state security agents. The 'great firewall of China' became a reality earlier this year when that country's authorities clashed with Google over censorship issues. Cyber-attacks are launched, not only by dreadlocked anti-capitalists, but also by Russian nationalists. Even western democracies don't escape Big Brother's omnipresent eye. If not, ask Paul Chambers, who posted a joke on Twitter in January and got slapped with a one-thousand-pound fine this week.

My position on this online revolution is pragmatic. By all means, if you care about digital democracy, make sure that you check and double-check (and even triple-check!) that the tools you use against despotic governments are not used against you in return. Social neworking sites were not primarily created to fight against Putin, however privacy should be at the core of its ethos. Let's make the task of finding activists a bit harder for authoritarian regimes. Moreover, many grassroots dissidents don't have access to computers. One of my long-standing disagreements with the Cuban community abroad is the whole rigmarole about access to internet in Cuba. I'm all for it, let's be clear about that, but it is not a priority.To me, more attention should be paid to reaching those right-thinking people who want to bring the radical democratic reforms we so badly need. Let's create a platform for them and give them a voice outside Cuba no matter if it's through Twitter or any other tool. The revolution is here, Gil, and whether we call it cyber or not, it will be Tweetlevised.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...', to be published on Tuesday 18th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Interesting reading, as always, thank you :)

  2. Many thanks, Rachel. To be fair to Gil, he does say at the end of the track 'the revolution will be live'. I guess he had a different kind of 'live' in mind, though.

    Greetings from London.

  3. Oh, this is a wonderfully passionate and yet balanced view about the importance of, and punishments for, this freedom of expression.

    I found your Sunday blog heartening, having been extremely discouraged by U.S. politics recently.

    I've given up watching even the best news programs on Public Television because I'm so annoyed (genuinely childish of me!) at all the political posturing. For instance, the inability to get an obviously strict (dare we say anti-big oil companies) bill passed in light of this recent oil leak infuriated me.

    so, I've been emphasizing/thinking about the one (Alaskan) vote in Congress that finished the bill that would have been quite severe against those oil companies (even punished them for lack of forethought about potential leaks) and have not been putting enough emphasis what's been positive on the political front, including changes that have occurred because of the new social media...

    I know, rationally, that social change is glacially slow ...and that in my lifetime there's been so much positive change...the role of women, the diminishment of racism, the possibility of gay marriage, the election of an Afro-American/Caucasian U.S. president, etc...

    so thanks for reminding me of the important positive changes as well as the constant potential for government control wrought by those same changes.

    In other words, thanks for presenting a balanced view.

  4. Well, very well said, that man! It is the privacy aspects of web sites like Facebook that worry me. If we could get that right I would agree with everything in your post. It surely shouldn't be beyond the wit of man ...

  5. Interesting. Your post reminded me of the devastating power of the mobile internet, during the Kenya post election crisis in 2007-2008.

    Texting and SMS technologies are widely used in Kenya and Africa. The low cost and ease of use provided an avenue for 'hate' messages to traverse the Kenyan landscape and incite post-election violence, from the grassroots.

    More powerful than radio, SMS is a tool that is multidirectional, like a virus...powerful in organizing campaigns of mob violence.

    When government officials pondered shutting down the SMS system, the CEO of Kenya's largest mobile provider (Safaricom) convinced the government not to shut it down, and permit subscribers to send message of peace and calm, all nine million of them.

    In addition, the Kenya Parliament had to draft a law to prosecute sowers of seeds of hate via texts/SMS.

    Thanks for this. My husband has the 1970 album (vinyl)"The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron." We don't have a record player any more, so it's in a box. But I can check it out on Youtube!!

  6. The changes you mentioned in communication are exhilarating. They have had an important impact on issues of consequence; for example, Iran. On a personal enjoyment level, we wouldn’t be exchanging views with each other via this blog if those changes had not occurred. You are quite right, though, in highlighting that this new capability can be hijacked for less honorable purposes. My hope is that in having equalized the tools that both the powerful and the powerless can employ each hijacking has its built-in countervailing force.

  7. I've started to twit too. My son warned me that I may kill my blog if I blog and twit. This may not be relevant to the point of discussion but the fact is I am opening up and becoming a part of the twitterati and bloggerati.

  8. Beautiful, balanced and thoughtful writing Cuban.

  9. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    I, too, have branched out into other social networking platforms, facebook, to be more specific. But only because I came across my old peers from uni and we have an online group. Other than that, I've got enough with my blog.:-)

    It's been one of the better weekends for me in a long time. And yes, Hema P, I will be listing the things that make me happy next Sunday because one of them took place last Sunday and yesterday Saturday 15th May. Chelsea, the football club I support, won the Double (that is, the Premiership and the FA Cup) for the firs time ever in the club's history. I'm still cleebrating. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  10. You're right that the digital revolution is changing the world. I, for one, can't imagine what my life would be like without access to internet. My research would be so much more time consuming if I had to go to library to retrieve every single article. And access to information has been completely revolutionised. And public participation in politics, democracy is a different ball game altogether.

    Starting a blog opened so many interesting doors to new frienships and interests for me.

    But you're totally right keeping the balance right. I struggle with it, but I agree.

  11. This is a comment to your previous post - in attempt to keep the balance between digital and real life presence right I switched off internet for a while.

    I was initially attracted to Hopscotch because of the music. I loved the Parisian, jazzy theme of it... but I struggled with it really hard and so I gave it up. I then picked it up again but I struggled even more second time round.

    I loved the poetic language and imagery but I found the theme really depressing. I can imagine why Corazar wanted to throw himself into Seine, I bet that's all he was thinking about when writing this book!

    I'm being sarcastic, but the truth is I struggled with all postmodernist writers so I guess this is simply not a book for me to read.

    Thank you for this review. I wanted to learn more about Rayuela for a while now.

  12. what a coincidence Cuban - this is actually the issue I was discussing with my media students on Friday - does the Internet facilitate Democracy or Dictatorship? - it was a very interesting discussion and supported by a good article in newsweek on May 10th - thanks for furthering the debate here....

  13. I like the way you remind us of the other side of being an online community. A thought-provoking read.

  14. You bring such balance. I tend to rave about the internet, without it my life would be so much harder and duller, so I never really consider that it could have a downside. I've heard about people losing their jobs because of things they've posted on blogs or social networking sites, and I've heard about governments and their agents who use it for sinister purposes, but I've never really done more than be outraged for a while before continuing to eulogize. I suppose any tool, even a toothbrush, can be used for evil as well as good so it's worth taking time to consider the ways something as big as the internet can be employed. I see it as a kind of egalitarian megaphone: more and more people have access to it and so more and more people have a chance of having their voices heard. As such we all have to think about who might be listening to what we say and the ramifications of that. Thanks Cuban, I'm thinking now.

  15. Thanks for a very interesting read, Cuban! As with any other form of public speaking (as I think blogging, facebooking etc. are), being on the net comes with as much responsibility as freedom, I believe. And I also notice everyday that I grow as a blogger that privacy is a fallacy in this world :-).

  16. Many thanks for your great comments. Much appreciated.

    Greetings from London.

  17. I just noticed in one of your comments what made you "happy" recently. It is so interesting to see what floats each of our boats. And isn't it wonderful that happiness mostly comes from a collection fo little pleasures in life? Look forward to your list!!

  18. To be honest, Cuban, I'm quite phobic of the whole online revolution business. It took much pulling of my own teeth for me to put together enough guts to start a blog. And then I started it, deleted it, and then restarted it a month later. I struggled with whether or not I wanted to be anonymous or my true self, and decided on the latter. I decided that being anonymous in an online platform is a joke... there is no such thing. Being online means being exposed. And that is a scary deal! But on the flipside, it is true that we are better able to communicate and share, especially across borders. I think that communicating with others opens up our minds and allows us to recognize that difference is a good thing. However, there are those who would disagree, and use this online technology to hurt and destroy. I suppose that, just like any other innovation, online communication has its strengths and its weaknesses.


  19. I think Gil did have a different kind of live in mind but I think you've nailed it with this great post.

  20. Cheers for your thoughtful post. There is always danger in speaking up yet we must.

    In today's NY Times: an article about wounded, badly beaten Russian journalists, the ones that survived attacks.

  21. Thanks a lot for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  22. Great blog! I especially like your music video choices, and I see you're also a fan of Chucho Valdes -- I love his duet CD with his dad.



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