I have been fascinated this past week to see the role that the social networking site Twitter (and others) is currently playing in the crisis in Iran. It set me thinking about the wider influence of technology on our (political) lives, and how radically that influence has shifted over the last century.
Of course, it all began with the humble radio. Radio was skilfully turned into a political tool by the Nazis - it became one of the major props of the Nazi regime, under the expert and nefarious guidance of Josef Goebbels. There, a pliant media became the tame mouthpiece of the regime, but radio was by far its most influential aspect - penetrating homes through a seductive mixture of light entertainment, music and speechifying. And, of course, it should not be forgotten that it was serious crime in Nazi Germany to listen to 'foreign' broadcasters, such as the BBC.
At that time, of course, the technology was at such a stage in its development that it was readily turned to the service of the politicians and could not be turned to the purposes of subversion. That would slowly change. By the time that the communist regimes of eastern Europe fell in 1989, part of their problem was TV; technology had developed to such a level that broadcast media could no longer be 'controlled' quite so effectively, and this posed a serious challenge to the legitimacy of communism itself. The legitimacy of the communist regimes was primarily based on the sentiment that it had been the communists that had 'liberated' central and eastern Europe from fascism in 1945. This, along with the radical social and economic transformations of the early post-war years , was sufficient for most to lend the communists their (at least tacit) support.
However, by the 1970s and 1980s, the new generation was no longer so content with such arguments and began to demand more consumer goods and a better standard of living than that which they had grown up with. This in itself would probably have been manageable for the communists, were it not for the beamed images of consumer goods and wealth that could be picked up right across central Europe from the capitalist west. 'Why can't we have that too?' the East Germans, Czechs and Hungarians asked in their masses. The resulting erosion of popular legitimacy was to prove fatal for Communism as a whole. It wasn't really Ronald Reagan that killed Marx and Lenin, it was TV.
Fast forward to the early years of the 20th century and the explosion of digital media poses an almost insurmountable challenge to the remaining totalitarian and pseudo-totalitarian states of the modern world. Not for nothing is China obsessed with controlling Google and blocking out Twitter. These platforms - along with SMS messaging from mobile phones - put the advantage firmly in the hands of the people. Communication is no longer a top-down process, by which the regime preaches its 'line' and the people obey. Now it has to be a two-way process - a dialogue - and all the time, and worryingly for their rulers, the people are talking to, inspiring, and encouraging, each other. Ultimately, if the people do not like their goverments, they can easily turn these programs and technologies to the purposes of protest and revolution. State control of the media - once one of the central tenets of any self-respecting oppressive regime - is now very definitely a thing of the past, and the Ayatollahs and Party Secretaries need to wake up to the fact, fast.
It is ironic, of course, that things that are seen in the west largely as frivolous sites for bored teenagers to arrange 'social networking', could prove to be such a potent weapon in the service of democracy. Twittering, it seems, just might change the world.