OtherTube, PseudoBook, and the fate of the world in Turkmenistan
Editor’s note: Is Turkmenistan becoming a battleground between two enormous visions? neweurasia’s Annasoltan believes it is. For too long her country has been written off as an absurdity when it’s really a microcosm of a greater human struggle. “We are tiring of the slow dial-up death of tyranny,” she writes, “we want to be jacked in, hyperlinked, downloaded, and shared!”
My editor here at neweurasia, Chris Schwartz, wrote what I think is a very accurate and thought-provoking description of new media:
New Media is the Media where there is no audience : we are all content creators… Old (traditional) media is defined by its one-to-many relationship of creator and recipient (audience). New Media, however, is defined by its many-to-many relationship between receiving/sending creators.
When I read this, I thought to myself, Yes, it’s really such freedom for self expression! Theorists like Marshall McLuhan even believe that the liberalizing impact of technology has taken on a life of its own, developing as if by its own energy, and will eventually break the many ideological chains that bind humanity. We will become a digital species, a truly global village.
I pray this is true, not only for the sake of humanity, but also for the sake of my nation, Turkmenistan. Chris and I have been writing a lot about the rise of the “Turkmenet” and what it may mean for the future of my country. For our readers in Europe and North America, the symbolic importance we attach to as simple a thing as mobile phones may seem strange, but you have to remember just how harsh is the nature of Turkmenistan’s totalitarian regime.
Indeed, my nation may very well be a kind of battleground between two visions, both of which Chris calls “transhumanist”, the expansion of human potential to the point of transformation, but are very opposed in their methods to accomplish this and what the “New Man” would be like. To paraphrase my colleague Averroes, in the totalitarian vision, humanity is reduced to being sheep, but in the digitalist vision, we become shepherds.
OtherTube and PseudoBook
True, Turkmens are profoundly not used to being their own shepherds. They live under strict government control, under constant fear of the authorities. They literally police their own thoughts, something they’re going to have to unlearn. Not only this, but the entire concept of free media has been conflated with political opposition, and that’s been conflated with trying to undermine Turkmen society.
Interestingly, in my nation YouTube is not about broadcasting yourself but about broadcasting others. The site is filled with footage of Niyazov and bad officially-sanctioned Turkmen pop songs. Indeed, pseudonymity has become the chief facet of digital existence. One Turkmen FaceBook user remarked to me,
My name on Facebook is not my real name, the friends I have entered are not my real friends, the photo is not about me, the birth date is not mine either…
Perhaps also his opinions are not the real thoughts circling his head? The Turkmenet forums are loaded with nicknames and carefully constructed “conversations” that rely upon innuendo and obfuscation to communicate. Directly and overtly discussing politics is simply not allowed. Anyone who strays from these unwritten rules are derided as fools, suspected as outsiders, and generally ostracized — for the online community’s own protection.
In this way, the digital world is mirroring the real world. The Turkmen exists in paradoxes of splintered identity. Friends of mind have applied for jobs under false identities. I was once solicited to make some advertisements for a company the identity of which the individual paradoxically refused to reveal. While on a reporting assignment, one contact would only reveal their real identity if I revealed mine first.
Yearning for a real connection
Most symbollically of all, the “world wide web” becomes localized: the forums are filled with local issues and about being Turkmen, not what it means to be part of a larger human species and global community. Ahh, sometimes there’s a rare offer to meet another user offline. Tellingly, these individuals are usually men (or pretend to be), and the offers are typically to wrestle somewhere — an expression for a more physical and profound connection.
This yearning is very important. I believe that change in Turkmenistan will eventually come precisely because my people will become exhausted by the schizophrenia forced upon us by our government. We want sanity, we want solace, and most of all, we want each other, sincerely and really. We are tiring of the slow dial-up death of tyranny of our government; we want to be jacked in, hyperlinked, downloaded, and shared!
So yes, it’s true that the practical realities are that digitalism has made only small gains in Turkmenistan, but it’s our choice whether to view these optimistically or pessimistically. It’s also a question of imagination: the totalitarian government has its nightmares, digitalism its dreams. And the simple truth is that the two visions are incompatible. Only one can win in the end — and I have faith that time is on the side of digitalism.
Imagine a Turkmenistan in which people rely more on news from alternative channels instead of the state-controlled media or the cooking pot of rumors. Imagine a Turkmenistan in which we can really know each other as neighbors, business-partners, friends, and lovers. Imagine a Turkmenistan that takes its rightful place in the world. I dare to imagine it, and I dare to believe that cyberspace will be the key to making the dream real.
Author’s note: Here’s another anecdote. Once I met two Turkmen diplomats who behaved as though they were in a race with each other to expound on the great achievements of our president. But when one them went to the toilet, the other quickly made scandalous revelations about the government and seemed desperate to convince me that he despised the regime. Imagine: a diplomat, our nation’s representative to the outside world!