Young people in Iran are like young folks anywhere in the world. They want access to the coolest, most up-to-date gadgets, the latest information and uncensored news. They want to participate in social media. It appears that they are willing to do what it takes to get both.
Economic sanctions have inflated the exchange ratio between dollar and rial (Iran’s currency) tremendously. These days, one dollar costs anywhere between 25,000 to 30,000 rials, depending on the day. Yet a surprising number of people with average incomes insist on paying hefty prices for the latest electronic gadgets such as the iPhone or iPad. Iranians always want the best, and technology is no exception. To give a better sense, a person working in sales makes the equivalent of $200 to $400 a month. An iPad costs $700 and all purchases in Iran are in cash.
When it comes to information and news, unfortunately the people’s desires are not in line with those of the government’s, which prefers a tight control over its citizens and their thoughts. Anything that is not aligned with the Islamic Republic is prohibited. Try to connect to Facebook and you’ll simply see an error message; the same is true for Google when searching certain sites as a slew of words trigger alerts in the system. A surgeon told me that even medical research could lead to an error message. “Research?” I asked. “Yes. Think about looking up articles in the field of urology or breast cancer.” Those words are enough to cause an alert. I was trying to sample The Humanist, while in Iran, and could not open the page. That’s a trigger phrase too?
Despite all the firewalls, however, I still receive many comments on my Facebook status from Iranian friends and family so I asked how they circumvent all the filters. Most pay a monthly fee and use virtual private networks (VPNs) for internet access. The surgeon I mentioned before uses VPNs for his research. In certain cases, ironically, government agents provide the access. A trusted referral is required to ensure the agent won’t be outed. Other suppliers come from Eastern European countries.
Anita, an Iranian screenwriter who has a strong Facebook presence, said, “When VPNs don’t work, I use Socks proxies.” (This involves users being authenticated to use a special secure server and also attracts a monthly fee.) Anita went on, “Typically around important occasions, like elections, the government decreases the bandwidth. At times, my system slows down to dial-up speed. And when I call my internet provider and complain about the low speeds, they say that the government has decreased the bandwidth.”
By the government she means the Telecommunications Company of Iran and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Recently she has started using free sites for access to Facebook and says, “I have heard Facebook use is now OK so long as you have no anti-Islamic message.”
That is a tall order. So is the government watching all your activities and deciding? Seems risky to me.
As for social networking, Iranians use sites for the usual purposes of sharing the details of one’s life, taking on new personalities, peeking into others’ lives, and endlessly ‘liking’. However, in addition to the mundane, they also tend to use these sites as places for protest, political awareness and perhaps as calls for action. The green movement of 2009 used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to gain international attention. Likewise, people voice concerns about political refugees and prisoners or collect signatures for petitions.
What about the effect of all this screen time? Much like what many have observed in Europe and the United States, all this interaction has made face-to-face comparatively a thing of the past. Only older Iranians are still willing to pick up the phone and make calls. Most people in their late teens and twenties communicate via SMS, even when addressing religious holidays, the ones that are designed to bring us together. I did most of my research for this piece at the end of Ramadan, the month when many Muslims fast. Typically the last day, Eid Al-Fitr, is when families and friends gather together and celebrate. Jila, a 63-year-old woman, had two older couples at her house on that day. She told me how most “happy Eid” wishes she received from her nieces and nephews were through text messages despite this being a custom long performed in person.
Since the revolution, life in Iran has been a tug of war between government and citizens. Technology is just another knot in the rope.
Sara Shareef (not the writer’s real name) is an Iranian-American freelance writer. Her nonfiction essays and book reviews have been published both nationally and internationally. She lives in Michigan but spends most of her time travelling.
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