Iran becomes iRan: Censorship meets connectivity

Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2009

Revolutions are so much about connectivity. We can see an army advancing from miles away and prepare to meet them at the gate. But electronic messages quietly ooze through leaky political borders no matter how hard the status quo tries to stop them.

The 1979 Iran revolution is often called the cassette revolution because it was the mass production of cassettes illegally smuggled into Iran that brought about the Shah's downfall and put the current regime in power.

In his book "International Relations in the Nuclear Age" (1986), Historian Bretton explains how the Shah of Iran's brutal secret police used their control of all the internal and external communication channels to maintain order and security. However, connectivity trumped censorship.

"Highly inflammatory revolutionary messages demanding his overthrow, taped in exile by his principal opponent the Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomenei, reached the masses," Bretton writes. "Smuggled by cassette into Iran, there reproduced and distributed en masse, the Ayatollah's word eventually triggered a popular uprising, forcing the Shah's departing."

Fast forward to now, when bulky cassette players are replaced by sleek cell phones. Although the government tried to stop the bloggers, tweeters and everyone else plugged into the great international data cloud, the world learned once again that there is simply no stopping connectivity.

With so many ways to connect, and so many info savvy, motivated people willing to speak, radio free Internet filled the ether waves. All that was required to change world perception was for a few bloggers to let us all know that the official word and the word on the street were very different.

In the iPod age, Iran became iRan.

What's our take away? There are a number of them. Here are two.

First, we are reminded once again that the medium is forever the message. What is truly important is not so much what the bloggers said but the fact that they could say it. We reawaken from our unconscious dependence on social media to see clearly our secondary ecosystem, a tEcosystem, that never sleeps and encourages us to behave as citizens within a global village.

The second point is about, of all things, blocking Internet access in our schools. If an all out, government sponsored assault on the Internet could not bring it to its knees, then certainly it will never leave our shores, our schools, or our childrens' lives. While Internet lock down in our schools is enticing and plays well in the press, it is rarely effective because it is basically impossible.

This leaves us with a clear imperative: No matter what kind of Internet filtering we may wish to use in schools, we need to couple digital skill training with wisdom building if we are going to teach students how to manage their lives in the infosphere.

If we don't like what is on YouTube, let's teach them how to create stuff we would like to see there. If we think blogging is dangerous and superfluous, then let's teach them how to make it safe and relevant.

Like water that crosses borders, information flows around any rocks in its path. Let's teach our students how to navigate that water critically, creatively and with a sense of humanity that will serve us all well.

• Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at His Web site is

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