Technology, especially technology that allows peer-to-peer communication, is the enemy of dictators. In a crisis such as that we are witnessing right now in Iran, these technologies serve two purposes. First, they allow those oppressed by the government to communicate with the outside world and rally support when it is most needed. Second, they allow those opposed to the authorities to coordinate their activities.
There is a constant arms race between authoritarian governments and the engineering talent of the free world. The Iranian authorities seem to have been adept at mostly shutting down 20th-century technologies such as cell phones; to some extent, even late-20th-century technologies, such as Internet sites. Apparently, they hadn’t thought of Twitter. This has turned out to be an incredible weapon for the protesters. I guess Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can just consider it to be a big bouquet from all of his fans in Silicon Valley. It’s a good day to be part of the technology industry.
Authoritarian societies are rarely good at developing and understanding innovative communications technologies, so they tend to be behind the curve. In May, 1992, I was in Bangkok when massive protests emerged seemingly spontaneously against a rigged election. Many at the time called this the “cell phone revolution,” because this was the then-new communications technology that protesters used to coordinate. I immediately went down to the large plaza where the protests were centered. Massed troops threatened the crowd. Later, when I was not present, they opened fire on the protesters en masse and cleared the survivors from the square. This was neither a police-like dispersal operation nor an isolated incident a la Kent State, but deliberate, national government policy on a large scale. There were scores of confirmed civilian deaths, and unconfirmed but credible reports of hundreds or thousands more.
We all internalize the experiences and norms of our societies, often in non-conscious ways. Standing in that chanting crowd in Bangkok, and facing an organized military force, I was too stupid to realize how much danger I was in — I never really thought they would put M-16s to their shoulders and begin firing volley after volley of live ammunition into the crowd. After May, 1992, I’ve never been able to see government and politics the same way again. As a wise man once put it, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.” In the end, if some group of people has operational authority over a preponderance of the military, and is prepared to use it, nothing else really matters. You either have to divide the military, capture its loyalty or create a greater opposed armed force; otherwise, all you have is a bunch of dead bodies that used to be idealistic people.
Fortunately, this kind of government nihilism is part and parcel of dictatorship, which tends to underperform freer societies not only in communications technology, but in lots of ways relevant to military competitiveness. Hence we can protect ourselves against them, and incidentally provide various tools to their internal opponents.
The really tragic thing, of course, is that even when rebellions within nations without the social capital required for limited government — like what we are seeing right now in Iran — succeed, they mostly succeed in replacing once bunch of thugs with another.