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A digital bloom five years later

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.  Future historians will debate just how revolutionary the event actually was, but the people of Kyrgyzstan are already well ahead of them in skepticism.  Nevertheless, at the time it was a big moment, both for the country and for me, and as I will explain below, it may remain important, if not for its material results, but for its ultimate symbolism.

At the time I was working with Ben and Ollie on neweurasia‘s predecessor website, Thinking East.  When Elnura Osmonalieva e-mailed us her remarkable and exclusive photos of the events in Ala-Too Square and her account of what happened, my jaw dropped.  We had our first-ever scoop! And quite an exclusive it was, replete with all the prerequisites for great journalistic drama — a popular uprising, the toppling of a corrupt political leader, and high hopes.

But it was immediately obvious that more was at stake than just Thinking East‘s journalistic chops.  For one, Elnura was not a professional photojournalist.  For another, I learned that some of our contacts, who were members of the KelKel movement, had participated in the street protests and direct action that resulted in Akayev’s flight from the country.  Conceptually-speaking, clearly something more complicated, interesting, and powerful was going on than just “mere” journalism.  Thus was my first encounter with citizen-based new media, face-to-electronic-face, spontaneous, and history-making.

Online journalism and cybermysticism

This sense that the digital world could somehow be the means by which the physical world is reformed  immediately appealed to me.   On the one hand, there was its political aspect.  I was reminded of my own early forays into the would-be revolutionary politics of the anti-globalization/global social justice movement.  This movement was actually one of the earliest pioneers of using online message boards, social networking tools, and internet-based citizen media tools to not only promote its message, but coordinate demonstrations and political actions.  Yet, while the anarchists and university radicals had only ever managed to piss off a bunch of cops looking for a good fight, the people of Kyrgyzstan had actually accomplished something, and with far less cybernetic tricks and tools at their disposal, too.

On the other hand, there was its metaphysical aspect, intimately related to the political one but not constrained to that sphere.  As a religious person, the idea that a non-physical dimension of ideas and quick-as-light communication was interacting with the physical world immediately resonated with the fundamental tenets of spirituality.  I immediately saw in the internet the possibility for real human change.  This has been a theme Annasoltan, myself, and others have been exploring during my tenure as managing editor of neweurasia‘s English site, and one which I have been exploring a lot in my own personal blogging reflections (for example, here and here).

A digital bloom

Two months after the Tulip Revolution, Claire Wilkinson, who would go on to become neweurasia‘s managing editor, wrote an article for EurasiaNet on the role played by the internet.  Despite substantially less internet penetration (as compared to the West), cyberspace played an important, if not critical, role in what happened.   Electronic political action primarily took the form of e-mails against the opposition (Claire herself says she received 25 anti-Bakiyev e-mails in the space of nine days).  Inflammatory clones of the opposition’s websites, notably that of KelKel, led to a counter-campaign of peaceful electronic resistance.  Claire concludes,

In the aftermath of the revolution, the Internet has remained an important source of information and a way for civil society and youth groups to publicize their activities. In particular, e-mail groups run by Yahoo have proved to be a popular way for groups to disseminate information of interest to their members. The scope for networking and the rapid dissemination of information provided by the Internet was demonstrated by reactions to the bloody and violent events just a few miles over the Uzbek border in Andijan on May 13, with civil-rights groups and NGOs using the Internet to distribute news as rapidly as possible to raise international awareness: members of the KelKel Yahoo group, for example, posted eight messages regarding Andijan in a matter of hours.

[...] The growth of domestic and regional cyber communities and the increased usage of the Internet for disseminating information widely and rapidly reflects the medium’s relatively democratic qualities in comparison to other media in the region, albeit by default, and its heightened status as a forum for protest movements and different points of view. [...] This increased utilization and awareness of the Internet to support political change and a forum for debate and mobilization, arguably, is as much a revolution in Kyrgyzstan as the events of March 24.

I think as time goes on, Claire’s assessment becomes more correct, and not only for Kyrgyzstan.  Whatever the failures of the Tulip Revolution to effect real change in Kyrgyzstan, it should be rightfully remembered as one of Cybernetic Man’s earliest blooms.

Author’s note: Below are Elnura’s photographs.  They are also available on the old Thinking East website, accessible via the link above.  Also included in this post is a video of the Tulip Revolution set to some Hip Hop.  You can see other videos by following the related links.

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