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When the Twitter Revolution Began

When the Twitter Revolution Began

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If the popular demonstrations going on in Iran right now turn into a full blown revolution—and it's getting darn close—it may well go down in history as the Twitter Revolution. I've only recently started twittering—although I had no idea when I began what I needed it for. I certainly didn't expect it would become the backbone of a revolution. Yet what's happening now is reminiscent of the role fax machines and email played in the popular demonstrations that led to the fall of the Communist party in what was then the U.S.S.R., as well as in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and other states.

Call it consumer technology, open communication systems, or populist information technologies—the same theme has been behind every major social upheaval in history. Go back a little further to the cultural revolution that shook the Western World in the sixties, something that would never have been possible were it not for the opening of the airwaves to alternative radio stations and the advent of portable transistor radios. The "establishment" would never have played Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing those things. The sense of empowerment that came from driving your own car down an open highway and turning on the radio to hear someone your own age singing (with an even worse voice than your own) the words you always wanted to scream out—that let forth an energy that never quite got back in its box.

Call it consumer technology, open communication systems, or populist information technologies—the same theme has been behind every major social upheaval in historyThey say the Russian Revolution was driven by the mimeograph machine. The only reason Russia was spared a revolution in 1848—"the year of revolutions" for the rest of Europe—was the inability of recalcitrant groups to communicate with one another. Those popular uprisings of the 19th century, as well as their root in the French Revolution, were made possible by the proliferation of newspapers. It's hard to imagine the American Revolution without a fairly large literate base of people all reading the same news in popular format.

The mother of all European revolutions was the Reformation of the 16th century. Without a doubt, the invention of the printing press had everything to do with that upheaval. Once the Bible was printed and distributed, the power was in the hands of the people. Because information—and the ability to distribute it—is power.

Now think back to the first populist information technology and imagine what sort of a revolution that must have wrought. I'm talking about the alphabet, the first form of writing accessible to the masses.

The move from glyphic writing to the alphabet shares much in common with today's digital revolution. Before digital technology, data was stored in analog form. Audio, for example, was stored in grooves in a vinyl disk analogous to sound waves, or in imprints that mimicked those same waves on magnetic tape. Video was stored in a series of translucent picture frames on a film. Digital technologies, however, store all data in strings of 1s and 0s—whether that data be numbers, text, graphics, audio, video or even smells. The alphabet does something similar, something that must have seemed quite revolutionary at the time. Whereas Egyptian hieroglyphics et al principally represented objects with analogous imagery, an alphabet uses a small set of simple symbols to represent all the vocalized sounds out of which words are formed.

By representing multiple media with non-analogous digits, digital technologies are able to reduce storage size, avoid generation loss, facilitate blending and synergy of media, and—most important—vastly increase the power of any little guy to move a lot of information to a lot of people in a lot of places very fast.

By representing sound with imagery, the alphabet had a similar impact. No longer did you have to memorize hundreds of glyphs before initiation as a scribe. Anyone who could memorize a set of letters not much larger than the digits on his hands and feet could figure out for himself how to write whatever pleased him to write. Even if he didn't use the same character combinations as the next guy, you could still figure out what words he was intending. New words and concepts could be easily added, without awaiting approval from the official society of scribes. The linear format and simplicity of the alphabet made copying a much simpler feat, with less likelihood of generation-loss, allowing for swifter and wider distribution of texts. Any child with a soft piece of clay, or a lambskin and some charcoal now became a scribe, no initiation rites required.

Any child with a soft piece of clay, or a lambskin and some charcoal now became a scribe, no initiation rites requiredPerhaps even more significant was the necessarily linear format of the alphabet. Take a moment to think how differently your eyes and your ears operate. The eyes naturally scan a scene by jumping about almost erratically, finding and registering the most significant features of whatever phenomena stand before you. The ears, on the other hand, are serial processors, taking in audio stimuli in threads and processing the data in chunks as it comes in. When I worked in early literacy software, the first goal we had for children was to learn to do something quite unnatural—to scan linearly from left to right. When you read a picture book to a pre-literate child, pointing to the words with your finger and turning the pages in order, you are teaching just that—how to use the eyes as though they were ears, in a linear, procedural process.

One contract was for a firm that taught literacy to factory laborers. As it turns out, adults who have never gained alphabet literacy lack more than reading skills—they lack the ability to think in procedural terms. A supervisor can show them, "first you do this, then this, and only then can you do this…" They will memorize the procedure and follow it faithfully. But then, the factory procedure changes and so must the procedure. Now they are lost. A literate person understands the procedure—and the whole concept of procedure in general—and so he is able to adapt. An illiterate person just does it, without cognition, so that any change pulls the carpet out from under his feet and he must start all over again.

In a summer job for a law firm, I was assigned to read through the oratories of the Squamish tribes of British Columbia, as they addressed "the grand father"—the prime minister of Canada (Laurier and then Borden). Initially I was enthralled by the grandeur and spellbinding imagery of their speeches. But then I found myself impatiently asking, "Where is this going? What is the plot to the story? What is the point?" But there was no point, the stories just meandered from one event to the next and the imagery followed about as much pattern as a loose daydream.

Learning to read linear text provides the reader with an ability to think in linear terms. Historical chronology now replaces the never ever land of myths and legends. Logic replaces superstition. Algorithms and corollaries dominate over axioms. The human being begins to see himself within a linear path as well, moving from past to future, ignorance to knowledge, childishness to maturity with destiny, with a story that makes sense. Words such as person, purpose and progress now enter the lexicon. Pharaoh's pyramid begins to crumble.

When did all this begin? Elsewhere, I discussed the revolutionary shift from glyphs to the alphabet that first appears in the Land of Canaan. I pointed out that this was not a matter of invention alone—the Egyptian scribes had long used a small set of glyphs to represent the sounds of foreign names. Rather, it seems tied to a social revolution, to a new and wild notion that information belongs to everybody. (Best books on the topic of the origins of the alphabet are by the acknowledged expert, Joseph Naveh. See Origins of the Alphabet and Early History of the Alphabet. You'll also want to read what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has to say in chapter 7 of The Dignity of Difference.)

From its very birth, Judaism has been deeply tied to the free flow of knowledge; to the right for every member of society to play a role in justice and human dignityIt seems to have begun only once, in only one place. Whereas glyphic writing appeared independently in perhaps eight different places in the world, all alphabets in use today can be traced to the scrawls found in the Sinai peninsula and pottery in Canaan—at about the time of the Exodus. By the time of the Judges, archeological evidence points to a generally literate society.

What role the alphabet played in the social revolutions of that period we can only conjecture. There's no doubt, it was huge. For an eye-opener concerning the stark contrast between The Torah of Moses and other legislative documents of the period, read Dr. Joshua Berman's book, Created Equal—How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought or his online essay The Case for God: A Political and Economic Perspective.

Cutting to the chase, the very idea of a national exodus and a mass revelation at Sinai was radically out of context with the mindset of the period. Slaves are people? G‑d cares about common men? There's something wrong with oppression? Humanity has purpose? Equality? Life is sacred? All these ideas would have seemed preposterous to any other society at the time. In fact, no other society attempted to set them into practice for another three thousand years, when the Fathers of the American Constitution used the Hebrew Bible as their prototype.

The Torah also introduced the first linear story of humanity. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi discussed this in his now classic work on Jewish historiography, Zakhor—Jewish History and Jewish Memory. The stories of Genesis are as sharply distinct from the epic sagas of the ancient world as they are from those Squamish tales. They are a kind of un-mythology, following a definite sequence, working towards a fulfillment of promised destiny. Without the stories of Abraham and his covenant, or of Joseph and his brothers, the Exodus cannot be told. Without the story of the Exodus, Mount Sinai has no place. And so it continues, as we are launched into a destiny of a nation whose story has yet to resolve, and with whom the concepts of purpose, progress and destiny were born.

From its very birth, Judaism has been deeply tied to the free flow of knowledge; to the right—or rather, need—for every member of society to play a role in justice and human dignity; to the recognition of the individual as a sacred unit and to the empowerment of each one of us to know and make known the truth. Abraham, our father, smashed the idols of falseness and Moses empowered every man, woman and child to know truth firsthand. One can almost imagine our ancestors, slaves in Egypt, passing scribbled notes to one another, "Assemble at Ramses, noon tomorrow."

If today, it's Twitter that's carrying on that tradition, I'm with Twitter. And with the young people who clamor bravely today in Tehran for justice, liberty and the dignity of human life.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Sean DeGan Marietta , GA July 5, 2011

Tzvi Freeman I have read a lot of your articles, commenting on a few, but this one is just great, full of facts and revelations. Your writings are inspiring, informative, thorough, and provide me with needed intellectual relief.

Thanks Rabbi Freeman!!! Reply

Sean DeGan Marietta , GA July 5, 2011

Tzvi Freeman I have read a lot of your articles, commenting on a few, but this one is just great, full of facts and revelations. Your writings are inspiring, informative, thorough, and provide me with needed intellectual relief.

Thanks Rabbi Freeman!!! Reply

Noahide Tehran April 18, 2010

What a beautiful Article Rabbi Freeman, after reading your article I realise that I we are desperately awaiting an Exudos and you are the Freeman, liberated and your words are liberating:)
Thank you so much for this article and I send your message to my people. Reply

egm Chucheon, South Korea March 9, 2010

speechless Incredible. The truth is certainly more interesting than fiction. And I was taught and believed that Western civilization was the first and primary reason for this intrigueing subject. Reply

sue Kanata, ON June 29, 2009

yep! thank you - a really erudite, pertinent article!
(Must remember to store in my online "library" for references!) Reply

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman Bet Shemesh, Israel June 29, 2009

Technology of Communication and Ideology Yasher Koach Harav Tzvi, for such an erudite article, melding worldly knowledge within a Torah message.
It's interesting that when the printing press was invented, the imams of the Ottoman empire were threatened - because now the masses could become literate, and gain knowledge, which is power. The Catholic Church in Europe was also wary, for the same reason.
Gedolei Yisrael, however, saw the printing press as a gift from heaven - now Torah could be spread to the four corners of the earth! And now you and chabad.org continue in that sprit, through this engaging column and website. Reply

Anonymous phx, AZ June 24, 2009

twittering Rabbi: I really enjoyed reading this article. It's very nice. Reply

Jane Siet San Clemente, CA June 24, 2009

I love twitter and I love the Chabad web site I'm an avid twitterer and a passionate visitor to your site. It's wonderful to be so connected. Reply

Anonymous June 24, 2009

We here in Brooklyn are doing everything we can do bring goodness to people all around the world. We doing that by adding more mitzvohs and by davening for a time when the entire world will live in peace. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman June 19, 2009

Relevant twittering #iranelection: "Many governments worry about guns in their people's hands, Iran fears computers in theirs!" Reply

sp4rrowh4wk from the Heart of, Free Iran June 19, 2009

Tweeps Need Your Support Thanks once again, Rabbi, as always your words comfort & strengthen simultaneously.

If you doubt the Rabbi's meaning or message, or mayB just need some clarification, I invite you to twitter.com - where hackers and poets collide in an attempt to free a country from one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. All at 140 chars. at a time. Each word, each and every letter must be carefully weighed 4 meaning. No kabbalist in history was more able to connect form and matter, intention and effect.

Watch as new media and a planetfull of people help release an entire nation from bondage. But don't just watch, Bcause we need your support. Iran needs your support. Democracy needs your support. Freedom needs your support. oxfordgirl, TwitPersia, and kerfy99 need your support. i need your support. i am sp4rrowh4wk and we're trying to free a country Reply