The voting is over in Iran, but the protests have just begun as thousands take to the streets to contest the re-election of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The concept of citizen-selected leadership itself is ancient, but we are witnessing today the latest chapter in how technology is strengthening that democracy, one byte at a time.
One need look no further than the 140-character updates streaming in from Iran on Twitter, the photostreams pouring in on Flickr, and the blossoming Facebook pages to understand and appreciate the revolutionary effect social media has had on how civilizations engage in and react to democracy.
The saying popping up over the last several hours has already become cliche: the revolution will not be televised, it will be Twittered. Stripping away the hyperbole of that statement and we are left with the very real and grounded fact that the way citizens across the world organize, react, and participate has forever been altered by the cornucopia of 21st century mediums, each of which presents a new platform for how citizens interact with and even select their government.
Here in America, the Obama's campaign brilliant use of social networking to fuel grassroots support is well known. In Iran we are witnessing how citizens use these tools to organize protests, and, most importantly, to bypass state clampdowns on media (for those who have not heard, the Iranian government has apparently jammed signals so that foreign press cannot broadcast the protests). Against the backdrop of the media blackout, information leaked online by protesters and citizen journalists shines, like this video of protesters coming to aid of police or this photostream from Tehran.
Across the world, the internet has fundamentally transformed how democracy is performed. It is certainly not the first time technology has so altered the social and political landscapes. The advent of the printing press, radio and TV produced similar transformations in how people rallied causes and organized.
But the internet provides something more. Where print, radio and TV have permitted political and community leaders to "get their messages" out to the masses, they are largely one-dimensional methods of communication. With the internet, however, we are seeing for the first time how multi-dimensional technology allows not just for the amplification of a "message" by those at the top, but it also allows for the creation of sub-messages, anti-messages, and other reactions by the masses.
In other words, we have moved from the era of citizen passivity – reading or watching or hearing about current events – to the era of citizen proactivity, where individuals are empowered to opine on, report on, dispute, support, or organize around those current events.
From the 2D organizational world of decades past, we are moving to a 3D version of democracy, where "feedback," "conversation," and "accountability" are key, whether they be in the form of replies, retweets, or YouTube video responses.
To what end, however? Sure, all of this talk about "online revolutions" sounds just as sexy as "information superhighway" sounded back in the 1990s. But practically speaking, what is the real effect of this technology on democracy? Getting out the vote aside, and looking past election day to the daily grind of forming a more perfect union, how has technology changed the way we practice that ancient concept?
My perspective is that the technology we deal with today is a chisel which allows us to chip away at the walls placed between ordinary citizens and those that enjoy positions of power. The previously unassailable press institutions can no longer hide behind veneers of objectivity and accuracy when fact-checking is just a Google away. D.C.’s most powerful, who preen about as if they are the smartest in the country, can’t hide the fact on Twitter that they are, indeed, pretty stupid (Senator "I’m no NAIL" Grassley, I’m talking to you), and high-ranking racists can't help inadvertently revealing their ignorance in their Facebook statuses.
There's a saying my Greek parents are fond of, common in many languages I’m sure, that "wine and children tell the truth." I would add the internet to that list, for there is something about this medium that reveals true nature. Whether by the intoxicating power of self-publishing or the innocent desire to simply share and bond with others, this medium compels revelation. It transcends state-sponsored blackouts and media blackouts, ignores "gag orders" and the concept of "taboo," and obeys no "sacred cow" status. In this intangible, digital, ethereal state, it reveals the character of nations and people alike more than any other medium has in history.
In print, that other medium, Maureen Dowd tackles the media’s HDTV problem. Dowd focuses on the fear that is stoked in the hearts of celebrities when they must face a camera that examines every pore and imperfection. The internet is HDTV for democracy. Its hyper-realism—in full display in caught-on-tape videos and 140 character streams of consciousness—empowers citizens to explore every aspect of their democracy, from what’s going on in City Hall to what’s really taking place in the White House. Politicians, previously enjoying the soft-focus glow of a complacent press corps, now face the critical eye of thousands of citizen journalists. Governments, previously able to control and improve their images internally through control of the media, now cannot control the masses of citizens, armed with cell-phones, video cameras, and laptops, that will scrutinize their every move.
Americans, Iranians, and populations across the globe are still adjusting to this high-definition version of democracy. At the moment, it’s a messy, grainy, frantic transition from the obedient to the obeyed. We are still a long way off from the realization of what it means for a government to be both "by" and "for" the people, much less an actualization of that concept. But byte by byte, chip by chip, the wall between governments and their people is eroding. And thanks to today’s technology, we can watch it all happen online, frame by frame and tweet by tweet.