Tyranny and Technology

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 27 2009 10:15 AM

Tyranny and Technology

What's worse than an 11 th -century theocracy running a 21 st -century country? A theocracy that enforces its edicts with the help of 21 st -century technology.

The country is Iran; the religion is fundamentalist Islam; the technology is cell phone cameras. The report comes from an Iranian newspaper, Vatan-e-Emrooz , via the Associated Press :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The first mixed soccer game—females vs. males—since the 1979 Islamic revolution led to swift punishment Monday, as an Iranian soccer club said it had suspended three officials involved and handed out fines of up to $5,000. Iran's strict Islamic rules ban any physical contact between unrelated men and women, and Iranian women are even banned from attending soccer games when male teams play. ... [The club] said its disciplinary committee suspended two officials for a year while a third was suspended for six months.

How were the women's libbers behind this outrage caught? Allah be praised, by modern handheld electronics.

The officials—a coach and two managers—first denied the game took place, but video clips on cell phones of the game were used as evidence against them, the daily newspaper reported.

For much of the past century, there's been a running debate over whether economic liberalization leads to political liberalization. Then the globalization and democratization of communications technology were supposed to help. Last year, President Bush authorized exports of cell phones to Cuba , thinking this would loosen the regime's grip. "If the Cuban people can be trusted with mobile phones, they should be trusted to speak freely in public," he argued.

It's a nice thought. But as the Iranian case illustrates, democratized technology can be used just as easily to enforce tyranny as to challenge it. Devices won't point us in the right direction. We'll have to be the ones who point them.

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