The first wave of WWW futurists were optimists. Sure, there was always someone wringing his hands over the increased availability of porn, but minor voices tended to submerge within the din of how wonderful cyberspace would be, how it would change us into connected beings, how it would break down boundaries, etc etc etc. From Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self to John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” to Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future, Internet optimists everywhere wrote screeds about the wonders of the internet and its positive effects upon society and politics.
Twenty years later, the present that was their future shows little of this abandon. Technologically savvy writers now tend to moderate their optimism with hard reminders of the stubborness of that elusive quality we call “human nature” and firmly entrenched institutions within the modern nation-state.
An early and eager devotee of the World Wide Web, Niki Akhavan noticed a forceful dichotomy in how the Internet was adopted throughout Iran, one which rings true for American users as well. As she said in an interview with Jadaliyya:
I saw that the spaces on the Iranian Internet seemed particularly well suited for the rise of exclusionary ideologies. At the same time that the Internet allowed for the gathering of dispersed Iranians with similar views, it provided the mechanisms for blocking opposing voices. One could easily create private or semi-private spaces where participation was exclusive or heavily moderated. Even in cases where participation was relatively unimpeded by site administrators, many participants took it upon themselves to shout down contrary views.
In her book, Electronic Iran, Dr. Akhavan explores these dichotomies in order to sweep away the dust of cliché that covers almost all discussion about Iran in the media. Most coverage of Iran, as she notes, belongs to the first wave of Internet optimism and recycles various hopeful platitudes–particularly regarding the status of women in Iranian society, the “liberation” of Iranians from the yoke of the past, and the certainty of a democratic revolution. The truth, naturally, remains otherwise.
Dr. Akhavan uncovers a particular quality of social media in Iran she finds disturbing: that the Iranian state, with its control of offline media, abets a new kind of activism not only in Iran but among Iranians in the Diaspora, something she calls “long-distance nationalism.” With their ability to merge onnline and offline media, the Iranian state have a much stronger ability to control agendas than any outside journalist cares–or dares–to discuss. This complexity is the soul of the book. By providing an alternate interpretation to counter the journalistic laziness about Iran, she has given readers a glimpse into the social reality of Iran and Iranians abroad. Its healthy skepticism mingles throughout with a certain hopefulness, a hopefulness one hopes is contagious.
The good folks at Knowledge Unlatched have liberated Dr. Akhavan’s book from the dustbin of copyright obscurity and freed it up to the Creative Commons. We took it upon ourselves to clean up the text a bit and make it into a nice, tidy EPUB. Enjoy.