|The bottom line for the online generation: Internet and cyberspace in Iran||
Despite its known sophisticated structure and yet to be discovered intricacies, the human mind apparently has an amazing tendency to simplify the information it receives and to look for even more simplicity wherever it turns. As school children we were told that the ‘wrong’ path was an easy and short one, but the path to the ‘right’ and ‘righteousness’ was filled with obstacles and if we dreamed to be worthy individuals, we would strive and never settle for the path of least resistance. But many such values took a different tone and color once we grew up and slipped into the whirlwind of what we call modern life.
Internet is loaded with much of these facets and it has indeed simplified as well as layered a great portion of our lives. For one, it has made us instant and honorary online citizens of the World Wide Web without any bureaucratic hurdles. We are the budding online generation and life is really good for us when we have internet, for we can become frustrated and highly dependent in its absence. We have also learned that our experiences do not amount to much if we cannot convert them into stories and share, after all knowledge is that which we can transfer to another individual. We have to keep our friends ‘posted’ about our recent ‘status’. All details count when it comes to establishing the social self. We have to get online and across by all means. The internet has even simplified our daily conversation by erasing much of the social, class and gender gaps. What we say has suddenly become even more important than how we say it. Instead of focusing on being understood, we are constantly concerned of being misunderstood.
Even voicing oneself in cyberspace has its own etiquettes. Human beings who can easily and subtly become inaccessible to us, even in a face to face conversation by shutting themselves inwardly off, are now suddenly reachable across different times and spaces as we open chat boxes one after another. To become internet existent, we have to create online identities that would perhaps live, evolve and die on a different time scale from us. And we can chat less conscious of our physical gestures. The instant messenger is perhaps the only space where we can talk to each other simultaneously without the fear of being accused of rudeness and impoliteness.
And then there is the art of blogging and the pitfalls of online obsession. Our diaries are no longer stored away with the hope that our progeny may read its past from our words one day. It is as though we have been robbed out of something meaningful and are being constantly shut out of something beautiful in exchange for comfort and security. But do we really feel more comfortable, more secure? Reliable or unreliable, there is abundance of information on the web available to one and all. I miss those moments when we were not so sure about facts, when the presence of persistence of doubts pushed us to explore, when we had no GPS and did not know just where was it in the world that we were standing, what it was to be geographically ‘lost’ and then ‘found’, to feel the magic that one feels for words like nostalgia, exile and poetry.
Now our fingers are more engaged in pushing buttons of keyboards rather than turning the pages of a book. It is more appealing to sit in a net café (known as coffee net in Iran)-a café in which for some weird reason no coffee or other beverages are served- or before our laptops and surf the net rather than taking a stroll in the park, watching the fountains and reconnecting with nature, a concept which has been repeatedly emphasized in Persian culture and literature. Why climb a tree, go to the national museum or pay a visit and talk with our ageing parents more often if we can do it all online and for free?
Some time ago, I came across an electronic birthday card website that offered its visitors a very reliable service. You only had to fill up a form with the birthdate and email address of the receiver and that was it! On each birth anniversary, a card would automatically be sent to your friend on your behalf and you would never have to worry about forgetting important dates. It got me thinking, what if the sender dies and is no longer existent? And then I tried to imagine the facial expression of the receiver who would get messages of joy from his/her long deceased friend on their birthday.
In the end one cannot possibly nag down all dimensions of modern technology. After all, we owe much of our always craved comfort and progress to its advancement. Perhaps, it is only time for us to change our approach to and application of it.
Cyber culture and its dominant domains
The internet has not only impacted the overall dimensions of Iranian youth and their lifestyle but has also contributed to the definition and the making of youth culture. It has been so deeply integrated into the everyday life of the young generation that it seems impossible to imagine them and their days sans internet. Perhaps this is one of the reasons as to why a good number of social experts in Iran of today believe in the potential power of internet in promoting cultural values and issues and expanding them to the families via their young members. The in-depth social and cultural transformations that the nation has been through are also another factor contributing to the popularity of the internet among the young. While public opinion and community bonding are still of importance, the young generation seems to have a strong inclination to independence and personal space with a strong emphasis on individuality. Even though the ‘individual’ could and would blend with the ‘communal’ from time to time, it is highly adamant in preserving its integrity. It is not then perhaps without a reason that the youth finds the internet as a space where it can express its new and independent identity. Moreover, because the majority of the older generation is closed to and unfamiliar with the intricacies of this technology, cyberspace seems like the perfect horizon that promises an open space for the future with lesser dominance of the past. Furthermore, social borders and limitations are somehow lifted and most classifying gaps like gender and class become less visible. The high and the low mix to become mediocre, the language of the elite and the merely literate shake hands, the polished and the colloquial get closer and embrace. The majority is no longer the leading voice and the minority has the opportunity to create it own space within other spaces. The possibility of maintaining a dialogue across time and space is also another positive factor. The internet displays a panoramic table of audio and video technologies with offerings available to suit the taste of a wide range of individuals. In the modern world, nothing is as before. The disintegration of nuclear and traditional families, migration to larger cities for education and work, transformation of urban settings, application of computer systems to our everyday lives and the significance of being computer educated and the ever increasing importance of independence, all in all have contributed to the existence of young people who unlike the previous generation, constantly display up-to-date needs and the evolvement of their characteristics seem more individualistic than ever.
Moreover, internet access has also simplified many aspects of life for Iranian youth, among which are for instance academic registrations through websites, subject specific online forums where students and individuals can interact, correspondence with professors and authorities, online education and cyber classrooms, access to various journals, internet banking, online payment of bills, online shopping etc. National social networking sites chat rooms and cyber clubs have also expanded the online interaction among the youth. Presently, more than 150,000 Iranians, the majority of whom are young, are members of the social networking site Facebook. Also, a good number of cafés, which are a popular hub and often a happening place for the young, are equipped with free wireless internet, particularly in Tehran and major cities.
Online ethics and webbed morality
If you try to open a link that breaches the laws of the country or is other than the officially authorized websites as defined by the ministry of information and communications technology (ICT), you will be redirected to a colorful page with a statement at the top, “With reference to the decree of internet violations, access to the above link is not possible.” At the bottom of this page, there are also two links that open to pages where instances of internet crimes are listed and the history of supervision over the World Wide Web in other countries and Iran is described. Reasons for supervision over websites, its advantages for internet users, and the strategy of other countries in accessing personal information hazardous to general and national security, hacking, online rights and others are also tackled. Users are also invited to contribute to this issue and send their complaints via the provided email address to the authorities if perchance a website is wrongly blocked. According to this legislation, publishing any material in conflict with or insulting the safeguard of the religious and national culture, the revolution’s values, the Constitution, jeopardizing national solidarity, propagating a good image of illegal groups, revealing state classified information, promoting vice, and advertising smoking is considered as breach of internet law. A committee active since 2002, comprising the representatives of the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting, the Cultural Revolution High Council, and The Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization (IIDO) supervise the websites, maintenance of a ‘clean’ network and report the ‘unauthorized’ ones to the ministry of ICT. These websites are subjected to filtering. In line with intelligent filtering, the filtered page has a 30 seconds timer after which it is redirected to another one where displays relevant website suggestions and a directory to national popular links on a range of different topics for users are displayed. Since 2005, Iran has been developing a "national Internet" to improve authority over its content as well as speed. The project, which is separate from the World Wide Web, is said to be completed by 2013. This network will be separated from the rest of the internet, specifically for domestic use. Creating such a network, would prevent unwanted information from outside of Iran getting into the closed system. Tehran has also undertaken a project to develop a national search engine dubbed “Ya Haq” (the meaning of the phrase is an invocation of ‘the truth’) by early 2012, which can be accessed through the domestic intranet.
Blogging: Merging the personal and the public
Blogging is a highly popular activity among the Iranian youth. The first Persian blog named ‘weblog e salman’ (Salman’s Blog) was published by a 22 year old student, Salman Jariri, in September 2002. In his first entry, Jariri briefly defined weblog and its terminologies with Persian equivalents. A few months later, blogging was introduced to Iranian internet users through an Iranian blogger known as abolweblog (literally meaning, father of blogging) who uploaded a manual for blogging. A year after the publication of the guidelines, there were more than 100 Persian weblogs. In the same year, the first free blog services, Persianblog and Blogsky were launched. Today, with more than 700,000 Persian blogs, mostly based in Iran, the Persian language is ranked as the second-most-popular language in the entire blogosphere. In fact, after United States and China, Iran is the third largest country of bloggers. Blogs in Iran perhaps fall into five categories: News and Analysis (daily news upload and personal analysis and comments), Trade and Advertisement (introduction of products and marketing), Jokes and Entertainment (anecdotes, music and video download, photo galleries), Educational and Training (research papers and academic speeches and videos), Personal and Private (record of emotions, poetry and daily events like an online diary). Personal blogs, however, are the most popular and continue to grow in number. One reason is perhaps that more than two thirds of the population is less than 30 years old, young people who are all eager to get online, explore and in a way claim their stance by establishing an online identity. Secondly, perhaps because the act of blogging seems like a social investment in widening the circle of one’s familiarity through trading links with other bloggers and broadening the horizon of one’s experiences by having access to that of others, for instance in the case of bloggers who form support groups.
1- Internet first came to Iran in the late 1980’s with the initiative of Dr. Siyavash Shahshahani who is a professor of mathematics at Sharif University of Technology. Shahshahani was introduced to internet during his academic stay in Italy. Upon his return to Iran, he pioneered the network with the aid of Dr. Mohammad Javad Larijani who was the director of the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Tehran.
2- Before Internet came to Iran, people used to connect via international telephone connection to the Bitnet network.
3- Iran gained the right to use its national two letter country code (.IR: standing for Islamic Republic of Iran) as the Internet's country code for its top-level domains and websites in 1995. The two letters (.At) was previously used before this. Iran ranks 32nd in the world in terms of the number of websites. Until 2009, 200,000 sites have been launched in Iran. 118,000 sites are using the domain ".ir"
4- In 1993, Iran officially became the second country in the Middle East to be connected to the internet.
5- Iranian universities obtained access to internet about a year after European universities. The connection speed, however, was initially as low as 9/8 Kb per second which was reliable for email correspondence.
6- Since 2005, Iran has been developing a "national Internet" to improve control over its content as well as speed. The project, which is separate from the World Wide Web, will be completed by 2013.
7- Iran’s IP-based 'national data network' is being developed by Information Technology Company (ITC), which is also a TCI (Telecommunication Company of Iran) subsidiary. This network currently covers 210 Iranian cities and has 60,000 high-speed ports to meet the needs of its end users.
8- Internet users (including internet cafe users) are estimated to be over 23 million. Also, there are an estimated 1,500 Internet cafes operating in Tehran (as of 2008). Prepaid Internet-access cards are widely available throughout the country.
Bizarre Buzz! : Shahkooh, the first global village of Iran
Situated 240 miles northeast of Tehran, the remote and mountain village of Shahkooh was the first rural community to have internet access as early as 2002. This was back when the village still lacked an elementary school and was yet to have reliable electricity and gas connection. The initiative was the brainchild of a native, Ali Akbar Jalali, who had gone to the United States in 1999 for an academic stay. Interestingly, the internet speed in this village is 2mb/s, which is ten times more than Tehran. The satellite dishes for the internet connection are supervised 24/7, so even if the internet connection of ministries in the capital city is temporarily disconnected, it is impossible for this village to lose its connection even for a day. Access to internet has given the youth an opportunity for teleworking and they can work and study from home. Shahkooh village is a symbol of the successful advancement of technology in Iran as the majority of its population is internet educated. As of 2009, over one million people from across the world had visited the official website of the village.
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