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Update: Embedding of this YouTube video has been “disabled by request” but it still can be viewed via this link:
Little Sister is watching from the rooftops of Tehran.
Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, created the powerful meme, “Big Brother.” Since his novel 1984 was published in 1948, Big Brother and its associated memes have propagated, as we now say, virally, throughout the ’O Spheres of human culture. I would like to suggest a new meme as an overlay and even a successor to Big Brother: Little Sister.
Who is Little Sister? To quote another great mememaker, Walt Kelly, as spoken by his character and avatar Pogo, ”Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” We have met Little Sister, and She is us. Put an Orwellian twist on the paraphrase, and it becomes,
We are Little Sister, and we are watching us.
Little Sister is everyone who carries a cellphone with a digital camera that can upload pics and viddy to the intertubes. Little Sister is the “Macaca” who provided now former Senator George Allen an opportunity to destroy his political career. Little Sister is the 3 or more BART riders who viddied BART policeman Johannes Mehserle shooting Oscar Grant as Grant lay prone on the floor of the car. Little Sister is an emergent property of people interacting via the ever-faster global communications grid and all the technologies, software, and infrastructure that make, extend, and connect it.
In my opinion, Little Sister trumps Big Brother. To be a bit derisive about it, Big Brother is sooo Twentieth Century. Little Sister needs no Ministry of Love, no Ministry of Truth. Little Sister is distributed. Little Sister is every blogger, every person with a Facebook or a YouTube or a Twitter or Vodpod or Identica or whatever the lubed up social tool is the latest trend–o-ware to backdoor the Internet. Little Sister is every person who has an email account, even if that person is a homeless person who accesses his email via a computer at the Public Library.
Big Brother is top down, Little Sister is bottom up. Little Sister benefits from the flatness of the infosphere as it now stands, Big Brother must contend with it. Big Brother seeks total order; total control. Little Sister is random and nondeterministic, technology-enabled anarchy incarnate. Little Sister has the wide world under surveillance, yet defeats surveillance. Every discrete bit of Little Sister is like a subatomic particle: If you know where it is, you don’t know which way it’s going; if you know which way it’s going, you don’t know where it is. Big Brother is as often suborned by Little Sister as the other way around. I’m not saying that Big Brother is going away, but there’s a new gal in town.
Little Sister does have a significant, or shall I say signal, weakness: Her continued operation is utterly dependent on the Res Technica, the aforesaid global grid, the noose-sphere into which humankind has stuck its collective neck. Given a massive fail of any portion of the infrastructure, the blue screen of death awaits her, and we take the long fall.
I posted the screed above on 126.96.36.199.15 11 Men 13 Pohp/April 16, 2009, just over a month ago. Now Little Sister is speaking to the world in Farsi, and breaking our hearts even though we can’t understand a word. We hear gunshots, hear screams, see fire and people running, men in white shirts shooting from a balcony. Are they shooting at protesters or are they protesters shooting back?
It’s Little Sister versus Big Brother, but it’s also Little Sister interacting with Big Brother, and vice versa. Little Sister tends to disrupt the status quo, though on occasion Little Sister does bolster it as well. More the former than the latter. Depends on what the status quo is that day, or rather, that millisecond.
But Little Sister is a process, not a creed. It is powered by people who have access to the technologies that allow them to input and output to the grid, but it doesn’t necessarily promote People Power, anymore than evolution by natural selection promotes the political creeds of the very ill named Social Darwinism, Manifest Destiny, or any ism or idea of human progress. Like the process of natural selection, Little Sister has no goal and no values of herself, even though she is an unintended creation of human actions and human instrumentality.
The technologies are being exploited by everyone who has access to them, for any conceivable good or ill. Access cannot be controlled at all times by any one authority or set of authorities. Little Sister arises from the properties of these technologies, and creates user capabilities unforeseen by any authority. Big Brother is a nickname for totalitarianism, a political system that worships, and attempts to preserve, absolute power for the few. Little Sister is the nickname I propose for the fruitful high tech anarchy in which most of us find ourselves living. Big Brother was purpose made; Little Sister just happened.
Now all eyes of Little Sister are on Iran. The vast majority of people who are using the instantly generated widget to turn their Twitter avatars green in solidarity with the protesters in Iran do not have any real understanding of the politics involved. They do not for the most part know the sordid history of the United States interventions in Iranian affairs, including the CIA plot concocted by Kermit Roosevelt that deposed the fairly elected President Mossadeq in 1953, and our subsequent massive support of the ridiculous but oppressive comic opera that was the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, which the Islamic Revolution overthrew in the late Seventies.
About the least useful thing any concerned American can do–particularly an American politician–is act like a buttinski with a bouquet of Freedom Fries and root root root for the Iranian opposition as if they were latter day Sons of Liberty. It’s patronizing and arrogant, not to mention counterproductive. The “Greens” are not a secular democratic movement in the Western mode. The Iranian protesters are chanting Allahu Akbar as they march in the streets, in emulation of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah, not the American Revolution. The Greens in Iran are not secular; they see Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali K as betraying the Islamic Revolution, not forcing it on them.
Yes, Mousavi is a gentler, kinder face of Persian Shia Islam, but, per Daniel Larison, it ain’t Zorasterians out there in the streets. They seek reform not overthrow. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s still political Islam. The Ayatollahs are not going away. If we’re very lucky, they will eventually become something like the equivalent of the English monarchy/House of Lords/Church of England prelates. The way things look right now, that may take some time.
In my opinion greening your avatar is like drinking green beer and declaring yourself Irish on St. Patrick’s day. It saves about as many lives as slapping a yellow ribbon magnet on your SUV.
By the way, ‘real’ Irish pubs in the States tend to close on St. Paddy’s Day; the proprietors don’t like faux Irishman wrecking the bar & pulling urinals out of the bathroom wall. They call it “the puking of the green.”
But Little Sister is speaking to the world in Farsi, and she is breaking our hearts even though we can’t understand a word. The music of the words is more beautiful and more terrible because we don’t understand. The media mythologers of pop journalism are already at work misinforming themselves and everyone else, writing their own lyrics. Myth is like a big wave crashing into shore, it rears up and the surfers ride it in and think themselves heroes.
There was a man on a roof in Tehran, holding a digital camera in his shaky hands. That is no myth. That was a hero.