Tweeting From Iran
As I write this, the theocrats, with their police and Besij goons, are breaking up street demonstrators in Tehran and in other Iranian cities. The government there has stopped international journalists reporting from the street and sending dispatches or broadcasts out. Communications and the Internet have been cut or tampered with.
You will have learned the fuller context about those news events by the time this commentary reaches you. A broader story in the making is about how the demonstations, the chaos, fatalities and injuries from confrontations accumulate potentially to change the Middle East power structure.
In an odd way, the current issue of Literal, a transnational literary and art magazine of Latin American voices (literalmagazine.com) is prescient. In it, David D. Medina profiles Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove” and 35 books, writer of screenplays (such as “Brokeback Mountain”), and who also operates a bookstore in Archer City, Texas. In the interview, McMurtry says he noticed a disconcerting pattern after 2001. “People come in and will sit on a chair and hold the book and don’t read it. They hold the book as if it were a Talmudic object from a past culture.”
I think the reverence of good books is derived from a comprehension that they contain more information in a small package than we can readily grasp and we remain in awe of them. But McMurtry says this because he fears the book culture is coming to an end.
We are, after all, human creatures who have witnessed the end of the Industrial and the advent of the Information Age. We now believe that a summary, a capsule or a factoid can substitute for comprehensive understanding. We defy complexity. We even believe Cliff Notes is like reading an original work, and a “For Dummies” manual is as good as mastery.
It’s as if we began expecting books to become field manuals or how-to guides, instead of pliable perspective on why, how, circumstances and consequences. Books can be long and detailed but they serve broad audiences with more than just bullet answers to a question. They can provide background and context.
If we were to dig into the past to find out how our public-information expectations got the way they did, we find the beginnings going back to the first printing press to the New World, brought by Juan Pablos to Mexico City in 1539. The first press to the colonies was introduced to Cambridge, Massachusetts by José Glover in 1639. The Hispanic press played a pivotal role in the development of many territories west of the Mississippi since the time of the Louisiana Purchase. They were the Tweeters and Facebooks of their day.
Yet now that the printed page is giving way to digital ones, the medium is made for brevity, which squeezes out fuller context for a bare essential perspective. The new way can even breed a kind of ignorance that arises from answering how but not why. Understanding can become truncated and we will see only what is in front of us, leaving out the past, disabling a fair comprehension of a possible alternative future.
In the same Literal issue, philosopher Julian Baggini says, “With any new media, it takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff, and until that’s been done, it often looks as though it’s all chaff.” It seemed that way until Twitter and Facebook became the world’s news bureaus in Iran.
Like a necessity of life, citizen journalists in Iran have been getting word out, telling the world the story when professional journalists have been silenced. In raw, unverified stories form, for now, a storehouse of knowledge is accumulating.
But the glue that binds the videos and Tweeter messages will eventually have to string together a longer, more complex message and meaning. Perhaps demand for a medium — an on-demand documentary video, with a narration stitching the tweets and cellphone images — is developing along with the events.
The thought crosses our minds that something else, a broader explanation than just the headlines and opinión, is needed. The revolutionary turmoil in Iran pressures of a broader context, the purpose that books served in the past.
[José de la Isla’s latest book, Day Night Life Death Hope, is distributed by The Ford Foundation. He writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service and is author of The Rise of Hispanic Political Power (2003). E-mail him at email@example.com.]