CRASSH: Cyberdissidence in the Middle East

Had the pleasure of attending another CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) event this evening.

After last week’s conference stoked my interest in the value (or not) of new media in activism, I was pretty psyched for another dose of ‘brilliant’ presentations and meandering audience questions and comments. 

I was not disappointed.

As the title of the event indicates, the theme for the night was the role of new media technologies in promoting activism against repressive states in countries of the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the event got off to a bit of a rough start as we were informed by the soft-spoken moderator that one of the four scheduled presenters inexplicably went missing somewhere between Oxford and Cambridge (guess that’s what you get for inviting Oxford people) and another would not be joining us via Skype due to “technical difficulties.”

Two comments…(1) the first snafu explains why the moderator jumped up to meet me and my classmates when we arrived early…this is a bit disappointing, as I was thrilled by his initial enthusiasm about our presence, but his subsequent anxious glances out the window made me wonder if something was amiss…(2) and it’s obviously quite appropriate that they couldn’t get Skype to work at an event with “cyber” in the title.

Anyway, being the hardy Cambridgers that we are…we weren’t about to let an absent Oxfordite get us down.

The official program started out with a presentation by Mehri Honarbin-Holliday, the author of  Becoming Visible in Iran: Women in Contemporary Iranian Society and academic researcher from Canterbury Christchurch University, on the fascinating topic of the role that new media technologies have played in giving voice to women living under the highly repressive Iranian regime.

Dr. Honarbin-Holliday recounted the different outlets that Iranian women (and Iranian citizens in general) were using to evade censorship of subversive ideas and opinions.

While, as I discussed in my CRASSH conference review, there are valid questions about the impact of new media in activism, the Iranian government for one seems to be threatened.

For example, the government has interfered with social media activity multiple times in recent years and has shown no reluctance to jail online activists.

In addition, Dr. Honarbin-Holliday suggested that the government had launched a cyber counter-attack of sorts by “educating” young women on how to effectively write pro-government blogs and online postings.

Very interesting indeed.

Next up (and last up) was CRASSH’s own Anne Alexander. Dr. Alexander presented some interesting research on cyberactivism in Egypt. That’s about all I’ve got on this one…not that her talk wasn’t good, despite the recalcitrant unplugged computer cable that pre-empted the first part of her visual presentation (no editorial comment necessary…this time)…because it actually was very engaging.

Just, as I mentioned before, some of the research in this rather narrow field can get a bit redundant (plus it was kind of late...and you know what kind of night I had last night).

All in all…I have to say it was another decent night. Having the opportunity to soak in all these different perspectives is an amazing experience. However, one further pet peeve while I’m thinking about it. When did it become acceptable for high level academics to read, word for word, a presentation off a script? Isn’t that Speech 101?

Not naming names…or even insinuating that this happened tonight…rather a general comment on what I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks here. I’m actually a bit confused by the prevalence of this phenomenon.

Also, after all this “new media” learning I’ve been doing…I’m beginning to think maybe I should go for a PhD and do all of my research on Facebook. This would be quite awesome…(a) because I hate interacting with people face-to-face (obviously) and (b) because I’m a freakin’ boss at Facebook. Can’t think of any drawbacks really…aside from a probable lack of academic legitimacy.