Telework and totalitarianism, Part 2

Six months ago I blogged about the possible consequences of widespread uses of information technology in fighting totalitarianism. The focus of the blog was on the use of the Internet by Iranian dissidents against the current regime in Iran. In an article (The Iranian Exile’s Eye by Nazila Fathi) in the January 17, 2010 edition of the New York Times comes another fascinating example of technological ingenuity. The author of the article, an exiled Iranian reporter, describes a key method of evading repressive authorities: bluetooth. Specifically,

one of the demonstrators’ most useful tools was the Bluetooth short-range radio signal that Americans use mainly to link a cellphone to an earpiece, or a printer to a laptop. Long ago, Iranian dissidents discovered that Bluetooth can as easily link cellphones to each other in a crowd.

And that made “Bluetooth” a verb in Iran: a way to turn citizen reportage instantly viral. A protester Bluetooths a video clip to others nearby, and they do the same. Suddenly, if the authorities want to keep the image from escaping the scene, they must confiscate hundreds or thousands of phones and cameras.

Flash back four decades to a meeting I had with a scientist from a country just east of the iron curtain. Our meeting was on the occasion of the scientist’s first trip to the United States. He explained to me that he was having difficulty communicating with his colleagues in other cities. The only way he could share data with them was by fax; the local political officer in his institute, who had control of the sole fax machine, refused to let him use the machine without filling out pages of forms. Therefore he had a burning ambition to buy a personal fax machine in Los Angeles and bring them back home.  This would  free his institute from the political strictures and facilitate his scientific progress. [Note: at that time personal computers and email had yet to appear.]

This incident acted as the seed of my thinking about the power of information technology as a means of ensuring the rise and continuation of democracy. The key concept is that, under most real world conditions, determined freedom fighters using information technology (even as “primitive” as fax machines) can keep at least one step ahead of any bureaucracy. The New York Times article continues:

The authorities have tried to fight back against such techniques and the Internet itself, but have fallen short. In November they announced that a new police unit, the “cyber-army”, would sweep the Web of dissent. It blocked Twitter feeds for a few hours in December, and an opposition Web site. But other blogs and Web sites mushroomed faster than the government could keep up.

This new, entirely informal network in Iran is not aimed at telework in the strict sense but it is a vivid demonstration of the use of telework-enabling technology to greatly enhance the viability of an organization. Bluetooth is not ordinarily thought of as a telework-related technology since it deliberately is short range. Yet in the crowds in the streets of Tehran bluetooth proved to be extraordinarily powerful.

How might you use bluetooth in your own work: as a means for instant meetings of a work group; to quickly organize teams for a crisis situation; to broadly disseminate important information; or …? The technology gives us alternatives for opportunities we didn’t know we had. What’s next?

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