There's a lot of debate about the effects of new technologies. Some argue that 'the kids today' only have three second attention spans because of video games and facebook, others think that science will save us from climate change and help us enter a new utopia. Personally, I see new technologies as contested spaces: they open up new possibilities, and different groups struggle to find ways to use them and control them.
I wasn't going to get drawn in to following the aftermath of the Iran elections. My PhD is coming to an end, I have chapter edits to do, bibliographies to tidy, a paper to write for a conference, a million tiny tasks that need to be completed all at once. Then I started following Change_for_Iran on Twitter.
It's hard not to get involved when you watch things unfold step by step. Change for Iran is a student, I think another postgraduate, and has been blogging about being under seige:
"I'm praying to GOD they leave us be! we should get Reza to a hospital Asap, he has some bad wounds. "
"Reza is looking very bad & they will shoot at us again if we try to leave here."
And, interspersed with all of that, the kind of things any student frets about:
"my head is spinning and Masood is killing me with the importance of his thesis files"
"our final exams date & time hasn't changed! according to university's head, everything is just fine!"
"shayan is studying for tomorrow's exam! I'm speechless!"
"Kasra is dead & I don't know where is masood, lost him in the crowd yesterday"
"there is no need to hide their names anymore Mobina Ehtrami, Fateme Borati, Kasra Sharafi, Kambiz Shoaee & Mohsen Imani; all killed by ansar"
Throughout all of this the connection to the outside world is so important.
"typing as fastest as I can in both English & Farsi, Still we need outside help, I really don't want to be captured by Ansar"
"They are filtering everything! Gmail is blocked now!"
The student takes the time to reply to people's questions, even to reassure others that they're ok, even though they're exhausted and haven't slept in days.
I could have watched this on the news, but even the shocking pictures coming out of Iran wouldn't have connected with me as much as another student worrying about their thesis files.
As well as letting people on the ground get their stories out despite closed borders and state censorship, the Internet opens up new possibilities for people around the world to offer support. This can range from messages of support send to people's twitter accounts to attempts to provide technical support. There's a facebook page set up to help supporters overseas attack Ahmadinejad's websites, and quite a few people out there have also been setting up proxy servers that let Iranians evade state censorship and get their message out.
Of course, the Iranian government isn't taking it lying down. As well as blocking gmail, facebook, twitter, and other sites at various times, intelligence agencies are now watching twitter for new proxy sites and to try to work out the identities of those posting information.
The Internet opens up new possibilities, but not just for those groups we like. It allows those who are silenced to speak up and be heard, and it also lets oppressive regimes censor and watch their citizens. This is why it matters that we struggle to keep the Internet open and democratic, in Australia as well as overseas.