Twitter Beats Truncheons

These are frightening, astonishing, remarkable events going on in Iran, and Andrew Sullivan has been hammering the point home: The protests are being fueled, at least in part, by slippery new technologies that allow people to evade the censors, share information, and organize themselves in a way that would have been impossible even a couple of years ago. This is all impressionistic of course, and all I’m doing is sitting at home “jacking in” as the cyberpunks used to say, i.e. reading blogs and twitterfeeds.

But it all reminds me of a piece by Bruce Sterling, from the early days of the internet, written a half-decade after the Velvet Revolution.  Sterling was in Prague, hanging out with some Czech literary types, and the conversation turned to technology and its influence on events. Back in ’89, students were coordinating the uprising using BBSes and a handful of beat up 300-baud modems. Still, it was hard getting the word out:

And then, without any warning or fanfare, some quiet Japanese guy arrived at the university with a valise full of brand-new and unmarked 2400-baud Taiwanese modems. The astounded Czech physics and engineering students never did quite get this gentleman’s name. He just deposited the modems with them free of charge, smiled cryptically, and walked off diagonally into the winter smog of Prague, presumably in the direction of the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. They never saw him again.

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that this Japanese guy existed. I’ve talked to four different sources who claim to have seen him in the flesh. The students immediately used these red-hot 2400-baud scorcher modems to circulate manifestos, declarations of solidarity, rumors, and riot news. Unrest grew steadily. By late November, Václav Havel and the older-generation dissident intelligentsia were playing a big role in the demonstrations. Then the general populace took to the streets, and without Red Army backing, the puppet regime collapsed like a rotten marshmallow. By mid-December, the Civic Forum was in power.

Read the whole thing.