This is just a sneak peek from Morten’s feature in SCENARIO 4:2013. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
Digital Man resembles mankind as it has always looked – full of opinions and contradictions, possibilities and limitations. The digital age is simply the framework we are situated in, and this gives us new opportunities. Meet Natasha Friis Saxberg, who incarnates the digital human being – homo digitalis – which she has just written a book about, and who even has roots back to the Middle East, which in recent years has evolved dramatically as a result of the opportunities the digital media provide for free communication.
When she was barely three years old, she fled with her mother and sister from Iran. It was May, 1978. As a result of the budding Iranian revolution, the country had begun to change from a Western-oriented monarchy to an Islamic theocratic republic. Shortly after, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, and under his rule, the country closed in on itself.
There were tanks in the streets, and the last evacuation planes had left when the three fugitives got out of the country, and the journey hence was by train from Teheran by way of Istanbul in Turkey and then further north.
Natasha Friis Saxberg came to Denmark because her mother is Danish. Her Iranian father stayed behind. A few years later, he was killed while travelling abroad, nobody knows for sure by whom:
“He was most likely involved in politics, but much was secret,” she tells us. In any case, her paternal uncle, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, was centrally involved in the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, helping Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 and later functioning as foreign minister. When he felt that Khomeini didn’t live up to his promises of separating religion and politics, he tried to oust Khomeini again, but he was discovered and charged with assassination attempt.
“It is likely because my uncle came into disfavour that my father was killed,” tells Natasha Friis Saxberg. Shortly after, her uncle was also killed, executed by the regime.
Back then, the media were mass media, and information could be held back. Newspapers, radio stations and TV channels could be controlled.
30 years later, the situation was different, and even in Iran, which still was held in an iron grip of religious power, things were changing. In 2009, the Iranian capital Teheran boiled over with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. The masses protested against possible election fraud in connection with the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; a Persian Spring was in the works, and Twitter was for the first time used as an important means of communication during an uprising in the Middle East.
The Arab TV station Al Jazeera could at one point identify 60 individuals who tweeted actively from Iran, and in particular a large number of exiled Iranians in the West used tweets as a means of information and communication and in this way worked against the regime.
“Don’t shut down Twitter”
Around this time, the world’s first conference on Twitter – The 140 Character Conference – was held. This was in New York, and Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter, could from the stage tell that the US government had contacted him and asked Twitter to postpose a planned upgrade of the system in order not to shut down the means of communication of the protesters in the streets of Teheran.
The regime in Iran could no longer control the media the way it was used to, and even though the rebellion subsequently was beaten down, and the Persian Spring cut short, Twitter got its breakthrough as a democratic tool. Later, the world came to experience the far more famous Arab Spring, where the people actually succeeded in ousting the leaders of undemocratic regimes in Libya and elsewhere. Once again, social media played an important part.
Also Natasha Friis Saxberg had at the time of the Persian Spring seen the possibilities in the short tweets as both a democratic tool and a business and social utility. She was in the audience of The 140 Character Conference, and in Denmark she worked with her husband on a book on the subject. It was published in October 2009 as the first Danish book on the subject: Twitter! – massekommunikation på 140 tegn!
SCENARIO: What a contrast. You’re sitting in the open and free West writing a book on Twitter while Twitter is used as a tool in an uprising in the closed Iran, where your parents originally had planned you should live …
Natasha: “Yes: History sort of ties a knot, doesn’t it? During the previous revolution, I was on the way out of the country, and during the latest I worked in parallel on a book about the tool that was about to overthrow the regime. I often think how extraordinarily lucky I was to get out. I could just as easily have lived in Iran today, and that would in many ways have been a life in stark contrast to the one I live now. I had in no way been able to work with the things that interest me today. It would simply not have been possible.”
Natasha Friis Saxberg grew up in Denmark, and she has in recent years established herself as an expert in digital media. Her latest book is called Homo Digitalis – Digital Man – and this is what we have met to talk about.
With her story Natasha in many ways incarnates the human type she tries to describe. She is often used as a source in the media, and she does talks and workshops about the digitisation that we are experiencing. She is a real electronista, who in addition to being an entrepreneur and a business woman has worked with the internet since 1996.
SCENARIO: Why have you published a paper book about the electronic human being? Isn’t that a bit of a paradox?
Natasha: “It is also published as an e-book, and this is the edition we are focusing on. However, when I publish a print version, it is because the target group isn’t necessary overly digitised. The readers are typically businesspeople who go to work and perform some sort of professional function where they could benefit from using digital media a bit more. A goal of the book is also to build a bridge to research in the field, and here the classical book format fits nicely. There’s already a lot of literature about how you can make your efforts on the social media pay off better. However, in this book I have also worked a lot with the reason behind it all –why social media take up so much space and what needs we try to satisfy on e.g. Facebook. If we understand this, we can also better question whether the challenge is met well enough.”
SCENARIO: What basic questions have you then put to science?
Natasha: “I have basically asked: Why are we doing the things we do? Why do we spend so much time on digital media? And how do we get more value out of it? I don’t necessarily think that the solutions we have today are ideal; we are still at a very early technological stage. Look e.g. at the way we use smileys when we write each other. If I say something ironical or funny, or just with a fun twist, I need to add a smiley. This is very primitive body language that needs development. Another example is the way we interact with many people. We write to a lot of people who are mixed together into a single, big mass, whether we know them well or not. This doesn’t make the quality of communication very good.” …