The Raw Feed of History

Posted by on 22.06.2009 in civics, media

#iranelection June 21As a journalist, I cannot say that what I have read and seen today is the whole story: everything is too piecemeal, too unconfirmable, too one-sided. But experiencing the raw feed of history has been chilling. As we try to carve out the truth from the speculation and relentlessly repeated reports of outrage, the overall impression is one of immense sadness and tragedy, of a country seeking to preserve itself by destroying itself.

Howard Chua-Eoan for Time.

That phrase — “the raw feed of history” — might be the best I’ve read in a while. It seems to capture the zeitgeist of both political and technological upheaval that I feel privileged to be witnessing right now (the same as I felt in the fall), as the world tilts rapidly towards more open forms of democracy via real-time mass communication. 

The key event that triggered that passage was the spread of the “Neda” video, which came out Saturday and seems to have become the touchstone impression for the whole Iranian ordeal thus far…

… a young woman, wearing jeans but otherwise dressed conservatively, suddenly falling to sidewalk, shot in the heart. Her eyes turn to what must be a cellphone camera, wide and shocked and dying as we stare at her. Men rush to her side and try to stanch the wound, but blood trickles from her mouth as an older man — later described as her father — cries and cries. Hours after the video surfaced, people on Twitter said she had not been part of the demonstration at all. Just a bystander. By the end of day, the Tweets had given her a name: “Neda,” which means voice or call in Farsi. [Time]

If you haven’t seen it yet (be strongly warned), here it is

Robin Wright, also for Time, suggests “her death may have changed everything“:

Shiite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for “Neda” and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th day [after death] events are usually the largest and most important.

“Neda” is already being hailed as a martyr, a second important concept in Shiism. With the reported deaths of 19 people Saturday, martyrdom also provides a potent force that could further deepen public anger at Iran’s regime.

Watching some of the street scenes play out is very strange. Here we see people just kind of noisily milling around while shots are fired — not running away until the bullet-impacts are clearly visible on the walls and ground nearby. We’ve also seen people walking slowly yet without fear — as if on their way to a soccer match — through burned out debris towards the sounds of gunfire (warning: the end of this video shows a man who has apparently been shot dead).

People seem to be somewhat aimless in these videos — as if they don’t know exactly what they want except to stand and have their voices heard.

Following this certainly has been an amazing experience. A week ago I was sitting here writing about it, wondering if there would be any more demonstrations. Monday I watched incredible videos of protesters helping injured police. By Saturday I needed an age-verified YouTube registration to view some of the more graphic content (they’ve had to interpret their own guidelines to accommodate it) — and even the tech-oriented site Mashable has included this footage in their meta-coverage.

What will we see tomorrow? What will we see next week?

This is a very early stage in Iran’s uprising (not to mention whatever chess-like power plays are happening behind the scenes and are yet to be revealed). We’re also witnessing the new media landscape mature from a fairly early stage.

Despite the impressively well updated coverage by The Lede at NYTimes, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic, Nico Pitney at Huffington Post, and The Guardian’s News Blog, we’re not really seeing the full potential of the real-time web yet.

Along those lines, Chris Brogan points to the notion (via Steve Rubel) put forward by Brian Solis, that the blogosphere could give way to the statusphere of real-time updates on services like Twitter and FriendFeed.

The technology is still progressing and people are just beginning to master the skills needed to use it effectively. These “raw feeds” are a great resource for someone like me who’s inclined to do journalism (if it could be called that, which I doubt) more like history: by taking a very large set of facts and selecting just the right ones to compose a large-scale narrative, spanning decades.

For example.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the founding work of history was about events coming out of Persia — an area we now know as Iran…

#iranelectionAs I’ve written before, that time was one of massive political, social, and technological change as Athens transitioned from a primarily oral to a substantially writing-based culture. That shift occurred within a few generations and world was never the same.

I can’t shake the sense that our current transition may be equally profound. In a way, the real-time nature of the web is bringing back some of the qualities of oral culture. There’s more immediacy and relevance to it — more urgency and emotional resonance — and this will change not just the way we see the present but how we think about the past.

It will might take weeks to make sense of these events — and it will certainly take years, if not decades, to sort out all of the facts and get to the bottom of it — but what we have right now is what historians have always yearned for: a sense of what it was like as it happened. 

Watching these events unfold, I’ve started to feel like I have a better sense of, say, the French Revolution — or even the 1971 Gastown riot (which a Vancouver artist has just painstakingly reconstructed as a staged, composite photograph).

Obviously, unless we’re in the fray (like the Iranian twitterers themselves — and like Roger Cohen, who “proves the old media is not dead“), it’s impossible to fully appreciate the circumstances, but we can still appreciate what it feels like to wonder what Monday will bring — to guess and hope and sympathize with some of their anxiety, confusion, exultation, and frustration.

There are still countless unknowns, but whatever happens now, history will never be the same.

Photo credits: both posted to flickr by .faramarz.