Thursday, April 1, 2010

Of Torture, Tumblr, and Twitter

“Almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet is a fundamental right.”
- BBC News

Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, deprived of due process but not internet access.

Guantanamo, 2006
The dog was in the prisoner’s face, barking, so close he could feel the warmth of its breath. More than the noise, or the worry that the dog would be let loose and its teeth would be able to reach his face rather than snap closed just short of it, it was the heat and smell of the dog’s breath that tormented him. It would have made him wake up screaming if he had been allowed to sleep, which he wasn’t, because he was forced to stand for 12 hours at a time, even longer than Donald Rumsfeld on a typical work day. During those hours he took solace in the fact that for one hour each day he was provided with a laptop equipped with high-speed wi-fi connectivity, and he watched YouTube videos of pop stars in his native country and caught up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

Tehran, 2010
She walked around in a daze for weeks after they were executed. It seemed like an absurd overreach, killing someone for voicing political opposition—wouldn’t this spark an international backlash?—but then she noted how scared she was, and realized their tactics were working. Unable to sleep at night, she browsed Tumblr for humorous photo collage blogs and commented on Gawker.

New York City, 2010
Little Billy couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was wrong. Little Billy was in the third grade and couldn’t read, but he did his best to watch the news on TV every night, at least until his mom changed the channel. When he watched the news he tried to remember every word so that when kids at school called him dumb he could tell them facts about protests in Iran or violence in Nigeria that they, for the most part, didn’t know. Little Billy got his turn at the classroom’s computer as part of the school’s new emphasis on “media literacy,” just like everybody else, but when he clicked on Wikipedia pages—bookmarked on the classroom computer—he did so mostly at random and scanned resulting pages for images.

A visually disappointing Wikipedia page on dinosaurs.

He always stayed for his full fifteen minutes, because he knew it was supposed to be the highlight of the whole week at school (he knew this was true because if you acted out your turn got revoked), but he only feigned interest for most of his quarter hour. He tried to explain his dissatisfaction with the internet to his mom and his teacher, but they each said it was an opportunity they wished that they had had, and that he needed to be good at using computers if he ever wanted a job. So he sat patiently for his fifteen minutes, but secretly was relieved when his turn was taken from him as a punishment.

Nigeria, 2010
A man with a machete kicked down her door and slashed her youngest son. He and another man subdued her with a fishing net and dragged her out the door. She knew the pattern such violence took and that she would end up in the same fire as the others, removed from her limbs the same way as the others, and wondered if that would be better than living with the memory. Before she joined the fire, though, the men took her to an internet cafe where she logged into Twitter—using TweetDeck so that URLs were auto-shortened to bit.ly links—and tweeted "pls send help b4 it's 2 l8" and included a link to a CNN article that gave Westerners the relevant background on the massacre. Her tweet used far less than 140 characters to allow for easy retweeting (usernames take up space, after all) and for users to add additional comments, like “OMG I just gave $10, did you?”

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