Monday, December 19, 2011

Vaclev Havel and the 300-Baud Velvet Revolution

A DSL ModemImage via WikipediaI was familiar with Václav Havel through his writings and only later came to understand his significance as a politician (I hate to use that word to describe people I like) as communism fell. Havel had to distribute some of his writings as "samizdat" - slang for self-publishing -  because the means of communication was held by the state. Samizdat was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc where individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader - it was the social media of the day but a lot more dangerous! The Soviet authorities at one time fired him from the state theater and sent him to work in a brewery. He was a signatory of Charter 77 which was distributed in the 70s this way.  The whole "Velvet Revolution" was an amazing thing to watch. There was something so inevitable about it all: the truth was going to prevail despite money, corruption and guns.

You know you are living under a repressive regime when communication tools are against the law. For instance, it is illegal, according to the State dept., to own an unregistered computer modem in Myanmar: "It is illegal to own an unregistered modem in Burma. You may bring one laptop computer into Burma, but you must declare it upon arrival. Limited email service is available at some large hotels. All emails are subject to monitoring by Burmese security services. It is very expensive to send photographs via email. One foreign visitor was presented a bill for $2,000 after transmitting one photograph via a major hotel's e-mail system. During September and October 2007, the military government disconnected all Internet access across the country for extended periods of time." This is not unusual in countries controlled by dictators.

I remember reading about people smuggling modems into Czechoslovakia back in the late 80's. Bruce Sterling later recalled the Velvet Revolution in Wired Issue 3.01, Jan 1995: "Back in '89, Czech students were trying to coordinate the uprising across the nation, and the technical students...were running the telecom angle. They used a 300-baud device with the size, shape, and heat of a kitchen toaster. The Czech secret police were far too stupid and primitive to keep up with digital telecommunications, so the student-radical modem network was relatively secure from bugging and taps. Fidonet BBSes were springing up surreptitiously on campuses whenever an activist could sneak a modem past the border guards. Modems were, of course, illegal. Most of the Czech cops, however, had no idea what modems were." The Velvet Revolution was using 300 and 900 baud modems at a time when we were bathing in the lap of luxury with our 2400 baud modems. They used the best technology and means of communication in the most effective way they knew how. Much like the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street folks, no one asked if it was the most "appropriate" or the most "sustainable." A reading literate people can help foster and ensure democracy, Epictetus in his Discourses says that only the educated are free. In his day, that meant reading and writing. In our day it should include a technologically literate people, understanding how we are technologically connected and how to best leverage smart communication networks.

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