The Spatial Politics of Leisure: Internet Use and Access in Tehran, Iran
Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008
Expanded from a paper delivered at Conference on the Diffusion of New Information Technology in the Middle East. Tucson, AZ. April 14-16, 2000.
A regular column featured in the now-defunct liberal Iranian newspaper, Azadegan, written by Hossein Derakhshian, focused on the Internet. It was a combination of answers to questions and reports of technological developments, but occasionally addressed social points as well. These social points included concerns over economic stagnation, language constraints, and the lack of Internet availability outside of Tehran (Azadegan, January 11, 2000:9, and January 15, 2000:9). In one column in particular, Derakhshian wrote coyly, “Have you ever thought about the connection between this Internet column and the Politics page? The less said on this topic the better….” (Azadegan, January 3, 2000) Without saying anything directly, Derakhshian was alluding to the complex politics of Internet use in contemporary Iranian society.
The politics of Internet use in Iran, and particularly the potential for the formation of a democratic public sphere through Internet use, revolve around questions of use, control, representation, and accessibility. For this very new technology to which few people currently have access, questions of use and utility are of the utmost political importance, because arguments of use can determine whose interests Internet use will serve. The utility, or usefulness, of the Internet is also socially constructed differently by different political factions that have different political objectives. Issues of control and censorship are highly significant, as they are tied to central state issues of authoritarianism and democratization. The question of access, determined in part by the politics of use and control, brings the spatial politics of Internet use to the foreground. Given that Internet access exists differentially in a range of public to private spaces, from university campuses to cybercafes to the space of the home, it is crucial to examine how the Internet is used in different kinds of spaces, in order to grasp its political significance. Although increasingly access exists in other urban centers in Iran, it is also important to underline the fact that access is much greater in Tehran than in any other urban center. In this sense, as argued before, a historical continuity of Tehran urban dominance over media technologies exists with Internet use and access.
In analyzing the politics of new media technologies, Arjun Appadurai (1996) hypothecizes a central tension between virtual and spatial neighborhoods. Virtual neighborhoods develop through mediated forms of communication and information exchange, while spatial neighborhoods are the local, everyday physical spaces in which people live. In discussing the tensions between these different frameworks, Appadurai emphasizes the impact that virtual neighborhoods have on the spatial, but he does not address the complex ways in which the spatial neighborhoods too affect the virtual. He states, “…the production of locality–always, as I have argued, a fragile and difficult achievement–is more than ever shot through with contradictions, destabilized by human emotion, and displaced by the formation of new kinds of virtual neighborhoods.” (Appadurai 1996:198) Clearly, he places an emphasis on the impact of the virtual on the spatial and not also the other way around.
The location of access to the Internet, though, is a fundamental enabling and constraining force shaping how people can and will use the technology. In the following analysis of the spatial politics of media use in Tehran, I argue that physical nodes of access affect who has access to the Internet and in what particular ways. The constraining and enabling aspects of these spaces, then, have significant impact upon how the Internet can be used as a mechanism for the formation of a public sphere. This argument requires attention not only to the social implications of Internet use, but also to the daily processes and the spaces within which people use the Internet. The central questions that I seek to answer is, what kinds of political identities are being produced through the use of the Internet within differential spaces of access, and what are the possibilities for the formation of a democratic public sphere through these spatially contingent uses? I begin by providing a detailed background of the central issues of Internet technological development, social constructions of use, and concerns over regulation from above. I then delve into interviews with the young Tehranis, as in the previous chapter, to observe how a spatial politics of Internet use is evolving. Following this analysis, I provide two examples of potential arenas of public sphere formation through analyses of an Intra-net service and the semi-public spaces of cybercafes.
I will argue that most significantly, spatial access underscores the process of social class formation. The spaces of Internet use not only mark the separation of the middle class, but they further reflect and reinforce stratified differences within the middle class. My argument serves, at a basic level, as a further critique of the idealist politics of the neo-liberal global village. Instead of social equalization, the spatial politics of Internet use has the effect of further creating and redefining social differentiation. This is not to say that Internet use is without potential in terms of the formation of a resistant and socially equalizing public sphere. Additionally, it is as important to observe how the kind of public sphere being formed is socially exclusive in some significant ways. Internet use, moreover, points to the significant ways in which state formation is being experienced and reproduced through a multiplicity of semi-public, semi-private spaces and spheres. Spatial access is a fundamental political process through which social differentiation and political identities develop. In order to examine and attempt to understand this process of socio-spatial differentiation and identity formation, attention must be paid to the physical nodes of daily Internet use, alongside the kinds of virtual space that it produces.
Data, Methodology, and Structure
The data here come from three primary sets of sources: Iranian newspaper and magazine articles on the Internet; interviews with a group of young Tehrani middle-class adults; and interviews with and observations of Internet company and cybercafe representatives and employees. I critically analyze the newspaper and magazine articles for content on the historical development and importation of Internet technologies to Iran and for the major arguments and discourses about the use of the Internet and control from above. The arguments concerning use, utility, and control serve as a crucial source, because of the novelty of the technology, and thereby their power in constructing a particular sense of utility, as well as their centrality to central state conflicts. The Internet magazine, Shabakeh, which commenced publication in 1998 and had its publishing license revoked in the year 2000, proved to be a particularly important source of basic information and the arguments over use and control of this medium.
The 40 interviewees were asked, in a semi-structured, open-ended format, to discuss their level of knowledge and use of the Internet. Questions included what types of activities they use it for and where, and what their feelings are about its regulation. These questions serve as the basis of my analysis of who has access to the Internet and in what ways. These questions are crucial to understanding the kind of politics, and the kind of public sphere, being formed through Internet use, because they have important implications regarding which groups in which contexts have access to what kinds of information. These interviewees represent the experience “from below” of a group of self-described middle class Tehranis between the ages of 17 and 26.
The interviews with Internet service provider (ISP) and cybercafe representatives serve to further establish the background and politics of Internet use. The representatives were asked about their use of filtering mechanisms such as firewalls and their subscriber bases. Their responses have been analyzed for how these representatives construct and interpret discourses on control, use, and accessibility. This analysis is complemented by participant observation in the cybercafes. I was primarily interested in observing who is using the Internet in these spaces and how the spaces themselves are organized for Internet use and/or other activities.
Background: The Recent History of Internet Technology Development in Iran
The history of the importation of Internet technologies in Iran is marked by an initial slowness in adoption, followed by a much more rapid wave of technology adaptation, use, and privatization. Infrastructure problems of technological adaptation, though, persist in the more recent context as well. Initial Internet access was provided through a single line connecting the Institute for Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Tehran to the BITNET system, through Iran’s membership in the Trans-European Research and Educational Networking Association in 1992. In 1997 the system was expanded through a 128-kbyte/s link to Milan (Arabshahi 1998). The initial development of the Internet in Iran was thus primarily for academic usage and was sponsored by the government.
More recently Internet service provisions for private uses have been greatly expanded. The first ISP was the Data Communication Company of Iran (DCI), an organ of the Ministry of Post, Telephone, and Telegraph (Bogert 1996). DCI continues to be the most dominant of the ISPs, although now over 30 ISPs exist in Iran in various stages of development (Samii 1999). Some of the most popular are Neda Rayaneh, which is actually owned by the Tehran municipality; IRNET, the first private service that began as a Bulletin Board System; Virayeshgar Corporation; Apadana; and Pars Suppala (Arabshahi 1998; New York Times, October 8, 1999:8). The last three are linked through sites outside of Iran, but market themselves primarily within Iran. In addition to the expansion and privatization of Internet service provision, the number of users dramatically increased from 1994 to 1999, from less than 10,000 users, primarily academics and government officials, to up to 100,000 or more, many of whom are private subscribers (Manateq-e Azad, June 26, 1999:5). According to a regional survey conducted by the monthly computer networking magazine, Shabakeh, Iran ranked second to Kuwait in the Persian Gulf region in terms of national Internet technology advancement in 1999.
Some of the problems preventing the full development of Internet technologies have been more infrastructural than governmental. Initially, DCI held a monopoly over the privatization of Internet service provision. Recent sluggish rates of economic development, furthermore, have resulted in a dearth of resources and capital to be devoted to its development (Newsletter for the Twelth Annual Book Fair, May 12, 1999; Ghanbari, 1999; Zand 1999). An anonymous editorial in Shabakeh identifies the primary problem as a lack of communications technology use in Iranian industry and advocates the long-term investment in these technologies as a solution for current economic problems (Shabakeh February-March 1999). These accounts understand the development of Internet technologies in terms of beneficial economic development that will further aid the national economic system. The United States embargo with Iran has also slowed technology importation into Iran, especially with regard to the rapid pace of change regarding this particular medium (Samii 1999; Arabshahi 1998).
A final problem is that the level of technological development has been the dominance of Tehran as the center of technological adaptation; outside the capital Internet service is much more limited (Azadegan, January 15, 2000:9). My examination of the development of Internet technologies in Iran reflects a historical continuity with the development of other modern communications technologies, which have tended to be concentrated in the capital and have slowly spread through the rest of the state. In this sense the examination of Internet technology development in Tehran is atypical of the state as a whole. At the same time, as the space of the centralization of state resources, what happens in Tehran is highly representative of the Iranian state system. This is important, because it reveals the modern historical continuity of Tehran as the center of state and transnational transformations. The case of Internet consumption in Tehran is both atypical for the country as a whole and typical of Iranian state processes as the same time. I now turn my attention to two significant ways in which the politics of Internet use and access is being constructed from above, through social constructions of use and utility and through the politics of control and regulation.
The Politics of Internet Use and Utility
This section concerns how the Internet is being used and how its usefulness is being defined and constructed by different people as different ways of underscoring its significance. Because of its relative newness the constructions of use and usefulness are highly politically significant. In effect, those in positions of power have the opportunity to determine how the technology will be developed through identifications of what is most “useful” about it. As Mohammad Ghanbari (1999), a director of the new fledging ISP called Safineh.net, stated in a personal interview, “As people’s awareness of the Internet grows, different senses of the Internet’s usefulness will develop.”
Two of the most significant ways in which the usefulness of the Internet has been constructed are through its connection of Iranians to the “global village” and its displacement of other important media. Within the recently emerging set of neoliberal newspapers, the Internet is constructed as the “town crier of the global village.” (Aftab-e Emrouz, September 26, 1999:8) It is constructed as the epitome of such “global village” concerns for speedy transactions, democratic modes of information access, and economic competition. In addition, some newspaper writers have argued the idea that the Internet is rapidly replacing newspapers as people’s primary sources of news (Iran, October 28, 1999:10; Arya, October 26, 1999:1). This is not to say that news sources are very different on the Internet than within the context of established newspapers, but the media form through which news is delivered is changing. Both these notions are wrapped up in a sense of futuristic optimism. There is the argument, for example, that as the technology develops in Iran, costs will decrease and public use will increase, thus achieving the “global village” goal of equal democratic participation (Iran, November 1, 1999:13). As Internet columnist Hossein Derakhshian quipped at the end of one column, “Those who look to the future are Internet lovers.” (Azadegan, January 11, 2000:9)
The current uses of the Internet according to Iranian media representations of use may be divided according to academic, public-governmental, economic, and entertainment purposes. Academic and research-oriented uses, as stated above, were initially the most significant and only uses and continue to be very important. In the year 1999 university Internet networks greatly expanded throughout the country, centered at the Institute for the Study of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Tehran (Iran, May 11, 1999:16; Arya, May 12, 1999:5). Although initially many conservative clerics were reticent in allowing Internet access, as far back as 1996 many have supported its use for “science and research purposes.” This is science and research in the positivist “hard science” sense, devoted primarily to the physical and natural sciences.
Public governmental uses have greatly expanded in the past few years. Khatami, himself a reported Internet enthusiast, was the first presidential candidate in Iran to campaign through his own website (ww.khatami.com). The Iranian parliament also has its own web site (www.majles.org) (Shabakeh, February-March 1999: 107-108). Furthermore, the clerics within government are increasing viewing the Internet as a way of broadcasting their national goals to a transnational audience applying perspectives in Shi’i thought, based in the religious center of Iran, the holy city of Qom. This type of Internet use is perceived within the government as a “culturally productive” way of publicizing good morals to a transnational audience and through a medium that can be attractive to Iranian youth as well (Etela’at, May 11, 1999:7; New York Times, October 8, 1996:8).
The economic uses of the Internet are limited, but they are being heavily advocated by the liberal-leaning newspapers. One success story reported is that of a flower delivery business that became highly successful by accepting orders from Iranians abroad, through its website, for the Persian New Year. People wishing to send flowers to friends and relatives in Iran could simply order them through this web site. The argument that follows in this particular article, as well as others, is that the Internet must be used much more in business and that Iranians must not fall behind the rest of the world in terms of the economic development that the Internet can potentially provide (Khordad, April 21, 1999:8; Salaam, June 24, 1999:11). This pronouncement essentially follows the “global village” argument analyzed in the previous chapter, which combines a highly optimistic tone of technological development with a fear of international competition and “falling behind.” (Iran News, April 20, 1999:8; Newsletter for the Twelfth Annual Book Fair, May 12, 1999; Aftab-e Emrouz, November 20, 1999:5) Derakhshian’s column offers this global village-type argument. In one article, he asserts that because of its cheapness, speed, and utility, few people/corporations in the “advanced” world exist who do not yet use the Internet (Azadegan, January 19, 2000:9).
The biggest oversight in these arguments of the uses of the Internet concerns entertainment. Mohammad Ghanbari (1999) explained that the private users of their service could be divided into two groups: those who primarily subscribe for work-related purposes, and youth who primarily subscribe for educational and entertainment-related reasons. At the same time, newspapers on the right and the left are reticent to acknowledge this dimension of Internet use, because some of the material for “entertainment” can be construed as politically and morally sensitive material (discussed in the next section) and because entertainment and leisure do not enter into either group’s definition of utility. Youth, in particular, are significant here because of the conservative clerics’ view of their impressionability.
In defining the utility of the Internet both the right and the left support its academic and educational uses, but defined narrowly primarily in terms of the positivist “hard sciences.” Where concerns do diverge is around the right’s support of its utility for broadcasting religious and moral ideas transnationally, and the left’s support of its utility for economic development and democratic participation.
The Politics of Control and Representation
Although global village idea assumes that media consumption will produce a democratic global society for all individuals and efface the need for mediating political bodies, such as the state, current political debates and concerns over the adaptation of media technologies reveal the continued significance of the state system as a regulatory force. In particular, questions of how the Internet should be regulated or if it should be regulated, and how Iranians can and should represent themselves in nationalist terms figure very strongly in these political conflicts.
The Iranian experience of Internet usage over the past few years exemplifies the experience of some states, especially in the Middle East and Asia, which perceive the adaptation of the technology as a potential social problem (Iran, November 1, 1999:13). In this way, the Iranian state experience and conflicts over the adaptation of the Internet provide a realm for exploring multiple considerations over the ramifications of Internet technology development.
The Iranian government’s consensual position currently encourages the use of the Internet, provided that the users do not engage in any activities of a profane or immoral nature. Said Shirazian (1999), an Internet support employee of DCI, the main government-sponsored ISP, stated that the company has set up a firewall that prevents access to certain kinds of web sites. The majority of these are websites considered pornographic or immoral (qeir akhlaqi). Some political sites, such as that of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, are also prohibited, but the majority of sources of political news, such as the CNN web site, are accessible. The private ISPs are not as closely regulated by the government as DCI is. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance oversees their operations, but has not yet placed any strict regulations. Four individuals working for different Tehran ISPs in high-level capacities with whom I spoke expressed discomfort with the level of government control (Amanpour, Davoodi, Zand, Ghanbari, 1999). All four companies, even though they are not forcefully required to do so, have installed their own firewalls, which, following from the example set by the government, filter out sites deemed pornographic or immoral. In this sense, all four participate in self-censorship, with the looming but unclear presence of state government in the background. Mohammad Ghanbari (1999) explained, “This is a very uncertain period in Internet use because of its newness. As it becomes more socially incorporated, control could go one of two ways, either a relaxation of the current laws or a much stricter ordering by the state government. It all depends on which direction the government takes politically.”
These two positions are based essentially on the liberal and conservative positions. The liberal position, as evinced in the liberal newspapers, follows the neoliberal global village vision of media technology consumption. Its proponents argue that regulation should really be based on the individual and the family and support the necessity of increased global linkages (Iran, May 30, 1999:6). The conservative position on the Internet is basically the same as its position on satellite television and is concerned in particular with the potential socially negative effects of how the “brains of the young are impressionable.” (New York Times, October 8, 1996:8) A middle-ground position is argued by Seyyed Abbas Araghchi (1998). Araghchi argues that the Internet is essential for dialogue among civilizations, but requires regulatory provisions that address the significant cultural problems of societal and familial demoralization, the spread of racist propaganda, and cultural Americanization. How such regulations could be developed is unclear in Araghchi’s argument.
There is a central tension in all three of these arguments between the perception of Internet technology as a decentralizing, liberalizing force and the need for centralized religious authority and regulation (Iran, January 24, 1999:6; Hamshahri, July 25, 1999:14; Manateq-e Azad, June 26, 1999:5). These tendencies between centralization and decentralization are evident in conflicts concerning how the Iranian state should reconfigure itself through the adaptation of Internet technology. The Khatami government has attempted to reconcile these divergent tendencies by arguing for that Iran can be represented on the Internet that in a way that is at the same time nationalist, transnationalist, and religious in its content.
While the different political factions may have different opinions on how the Internet should be incorporated into Iranian society, they have come to a mutual agreement regarding its significance. Khatami has masterfully represented himself as a reformist working towards a reformed Iran through the use of websites (Neshat, May 23, 1999:6). He stated, “In this age of communications it is a big mistake not to represent one’s self and image in the world through the Internet.”(Shabakeh, February-March 1999:107) The issues of self, image, and representation for Khatami are both personal and represent how national self and image are presented as well. At the same time, this national self is placed within a global context, within which non-participation in global processes is a “big mistake.”(Shabakeh, February-March 1999:107) It is a mistake in the sense that it causes Iran to “fall behind” in the global power relations among states, and at the same time allows others–foreign media sources, other states–to represent what the Iranian state is for the rest of the world. Use of the Internet allows the Iranian government to represent itself within the world.
In terms of nationalist content, Khatami and his supporters argue for the significance of utilizing the Internet for different forms of “indigenous cultural production.” (Iran, April 19, 1999:9) These include Shi’i theological websites and classical Persian poetry and music websites. The tone of these websites is very nationalistic, with the goal of presenting to Iranian consumers and the rest of the country the idea of a “big, proud, and accomplished country.” (Ettela’at, May 11, 1999:7) This type of cultural production extends the twentieth-century Iranian history of conflating Persian history and culture with Iran the territorial state. It is argued that such types of cultural production provide a way in which the youth can be guided away from “culturally destructive” practices toward ones that can morally and religiously help them to become good citizens, all the while appearing in an aesthetically pleasing technological package (Newsletter for the Twelfth Annual Book Fair, May 9, 1999; Khordad, May 29, 1999:2). Hashemi Rafsanjani has further argued that the information the Internet provides, coupled with the Iranian state’s religious convictions, can be a crucial basis from which decisions of right and wrong can be made in the whole of political decision-making (Jame’eh, June 28, 1998). Hormoz Pourrostami, editor of the network magazine Shabakeh, argues in an editorial:
“In a time when personalities like the Pope and Mr. Khatami use the Internet, it is insufficient to see it as a sign of corruption…Unfortunately, the Internet has become political because of party politics…. True, there are negative moral effects, but people must use the Internet naturally, in the socially correct manner…. The goal of this magazine is to teach new possibilities for creating a socially correct society.” (Shabakeh, January-February 1999:20)
The sentiment of this statement, following from the Khatami philosophy of government, is to transcend political factionalism by incorporating elements of each argument in the implementation of Internet technologies. The statement is vague with respect to “negative moral effects,” who will be responsible for determining them, and what a “socially correct society” looks like. The idea behind it, as in Khatami’s argument, is to use the Internet as a means of bridging the political gaps and conflicts between models of theocracy and democracy.
Khatami has actively encouraged Iranian expatriates abroad, in Canada for example, to take part in this cultural production and create a “global Iranian family.” (Azadegan, October 28, 1999:2) The interplay between nationalism and transnationalism in this statement is very significant, because it acknowledges that nationalist identities can be maintained in transnational activities through the use of the Internet. One such a fusion has occurred is through the invention of “Farglisi.” Farglisi, also called Penglish, is the e-mail language that has evolved from people transliterating Persian using the Roman alphabet (Neshat, August 15, 1999:5). Because of the newness of this activity, it is difficult to predict how the social outcomes might look, but it can be argued that such a fusion is not simply and easily accomplished. Derakhshian observes that the use of Farglisi can present problems in translation and transliteration in communicating ideas that have particular cultural-social significance (Azadegan, January 11, 2000:9). The same kinds of activity that connote fusion and the transcendence of the national by the transnational are complex and problematic and have significant national-level implications.
The Interviews: The Spatial Politics of Internet Use
My interviews with young Tehran adults reveal how state policies and constructions of Internet use and regulation are being experienced and reproduced from below. In order to situate these processes within space, it is essential to place the interviews within the context of state conflicts and debates over regulation. The third part of this section of the chapter brings these experiences of use and control together by focusing upon how the spatial situatedness of Internet use provides differential levels of accessibility, and thus allows for the construction of new kinds of power relations.
The Social Construction of Internet Use and Utility From Below
The responses of the interviewees regarding their own experiences and thoughts about the use and usefulness of the Internet reveal a somewhat different situation than the more formal political divergence described earlier. The most significant divergence concerns the interviewees’ use of the Internet for leisure and entertainment, which is not addressed by either political faction. Before entering into the specifics of the interviewees’ views on the usefulness of the Internet, it is important to describe the types of activities for which the students use it. An important point to make is that of the 40 interviewees a total of 15 had never actually used the Internet. This is a significant difference from satellite television, where practically all the interviewees had some physical level of experience. The implications of this difference will be dealt with later in this chapter.
The interviewees who do have experience with the Internet use it primarily for educational and entertainment purposes. The educational purpose is especially strong among the slightly older college students. Ali (M, 23) explained that a large portion of his master’s thesis research is being conducted from Internet sources, where he has access to material not available in Tehran’s libraries. Hani (M, 23) similarly observed that while before he would primarily use the Internet as a form of entertainment, now that he is at a higher level of his studies, he is using it much more for research. Kaveh (M, 20) and Siamak (M, 20), both electric engineering-computer science majors, use the web to become familiar with web page graphic design and programming, while Ali, a mechanical engineering major, uses the Internet to research his professional interests in ship building and engineering.
Amir Ali (M, 19), Hormoz (M, 19), Shahrzad (F, 18), and Armity (F, 19), all first-year college students, related that they think the Internet will be important for their education in the near future, but for now entertainment is the main way that they use the Internet. “Entertainment for young Iranians,” Hormoz stated, “includes e-mail, chat rooms, checking out the websites for famous Iranian singers, and so on.” Parang (M, 19) and Arshia (M, 19), who both have serious interests in musical composition as a hobby, use the Internet to gain access to music otherwise unable to them. E-mail tends to be the dominant entertainment-oriented activity among many of the interviewees. Parang argued that it provides a social outlet not otherwise available in Tehran society; through chat rooms, men and women can get to know each other without the looming threat of moral policing in the background. Arshia stated that he can regularly correspond with his brother, who lives in Paris, through the use of e-mail.
Absent from these responses of use are the governmental and economic aspects described in the previous section. In terms of their own uses, none of the respondents discussed any political reasons, dedication to particular causes represented on the Internet, or devotion to particular Islamic websites created by the government. Furthermore, they are not interested in the economic possibilities offered by the Internet beyond their own education and research. Maryam (F, 18), for example, asserted that while she thinks the Internet will be important for her education and research, it will not eventually be very relevant for her job. This stance may partially be the result of their youth; they may, indeed, discover the economic aspects later in their careers. Also, as stated in the previous section, computer technologies have not yet been incorporated within Iranian economic systems as of yet. Thus, some interviewees most likely do not perceive the economic benefits of using the Internet, because it has yet to be firmly established along this line of use. In any case, the responses indicate a privileging of educational and entertainment reasons over political and economic ones. This is not to say that how the interviewees understand their use of the Internet lacks political implications; I am using the categories developed in the previous section of the types of activities constructed as “useful,” which are primarily academic, religious, and to some extent commercial.
At the same time many of the interviewees privilege the “scientific”/educational uses of the Internet over the entertainment-related ones, at an idealistic level if not necessarily in practice. Neda (F, 19), for example, among many others, argued that many of the entertainment-related uses are frivolous and that the Internet should be used more for “scientific progress.” This privileging of scientific and educational uses over all others, then, became an arena from which several interviewees paradoxically explained how its use should be opened up at the same time that it is socially limited. Kourosh (M, 26) asserted that because the Internet is such a scientifically valuable tool, it should be free and open and its use should be up to personal choice. Parastoo (F, 18) and Hormoz (M, 19) both agreed that as long as people are using it for more useful education-oriented activities and less for entertainment/anti-moral activities, then there should be no rules over its use. Hormoz likened it to a knife that can be used to kill someone or to slice an apple. Whether it is beneficial or detrimental depends on how people use the technology.
As with satellite television, there is a class component to this argument. Hamed (M, 19) argued that how people use the Internet depends on their level of “social and cultural education,” which Leyla (F, 23) specified as analogous to social class. The upper and middle classes are pursuing education, so they are more likely to use the Internet for good purposes, while the poor are more likely to use it for amoral (qeir akhlaqi), less educationally-based reasons. Thus, the politics of utility become at once a rallying voice for liberalization and a social criticism of and social differentiation from “the poor.” I will enter into an analysis of how the working class would hypothetically use the Internet given the chance; rather, I want to point out the specific way in which its potential use is perceived by some of the interviewees.
Interest and excitement regarding the Internet is particularly strong among those who have very limited or no experience with it. A number of interviewees expressed that despite their limited experience, they are very interested in learning and believe that as access to the Internet becomes more socially available, they will have the opportunity. Reza (M, 19), who has had no hands-on experience, stated his desire to take a class on Internet use in the Fall of 1999. These responses reveal the extent to which despite the lack of access, many young people are very well aware of the presence of the Internet and are generally very enthusiastic about it.
All interviewees had positive feelings about the potential personal usefulness of the Internet. Hamed (M, 19) stated, ” In the end there are many ways through which young people can follow an amoral route (rah-e khalaf)…. The Internet is much more morally positive than satellite television.” Hamid Reza (M, 21) explained that this is because the Internet provides opportunities for information exchange that satellite television does not. It is significant to understand the multiple ways in which the Internet’s usefulness is constructed among the interviewees, and how this idea of utility corresponds with the articulation of a particular social need. As much as the interviewees might not be directly interested in kinds of political activity, this stand leads them to a political position of supporting the continued liberalization of the Internet. Speaking primarily from a privileging of educational benefits over others, and differentiating the Internet as a more interactive, morally correct technology than satellite television, the interviewees argue for its social liberalization and expansion. But this social expansion privileges their own access while limiting it for other kinds of social uses, as I will argue in ensuing sections of this chapter.
In this early stage of technological development, it is difficult to predict the impact that this stand will have on how the use of the Internet evolves in the Iranian context, or for that matter how the diverging ideas of utility from above will impact how people will perceive and use the technology. The experience of the interviewees explains the significance of positivist scientific learning, moral integrity, and entertainment/leisure needs all at the same time. The major divergence of the interviewees’ uses from the idea of usefulness sanctioned by state powers lies in the area of entertainment. While the interviewees argue idealistically than educational uses are the most profound and important, in practice they use the Internet and e-mail as forms of recreation and socializing as well.
Debates over Control
Just as the debates over the implementation of Internet access within the state government primarily concern how the technology should be expanded rather than if it should be utilized at all, the interviewees clash more over the extent to which they feel the Internet should be regulated rather than whether it should be prohibited or not. Their views on control and regulation are not directly opposed to government positions in any dramatic way. Their replies indicate not simply different levels of enthusiasm about the Internet, but they also substantially relay their complex views on their own national and transnational identities.
The majority of the interviewees stated strongly that they feel the Internet should not be regulated at all based on ideological, practical, and experiential reasons. Kourosh (M, 26), Parastoo (F, 21) and Maryam (F, 18) reflected that the Internet should be free based on the democratic and ideological grounds that access to information technologies is good and necessary. Arshia (M, 19) and Kourosh (M, 26) further explained that its usage should be based upon personal and/or familial decision-making, not the state government. This view was even voiced by some of the interviewees who had never used the Internet. Kayvan (M, 19), for example, had never used it, but he thought it is an important freedom that needs to be maintained. Ali (M, 23), too, believed that any negative effects would be temporary, and that following that initial stage, questions of whether or not to use the Internet and how to use it would become a matter of individual choice. This set of responses suggests that the Internet should be free based on liberal notions of freedom of access.
Another set of respondents argued that the Internet should be free because its governance is impractical, impossible, or counter-productive. Armity (F, 19), for example, asserted that considering the constant change and the vast amount of information available on the Internet, it is extremely difficult and time and energy consuming to be constantly filtering through new sites. Rahil (F, 19) said, “Our experience in the past 20 years has shown how impossible it is to regulate videos and satellite television. People will find some way of getting what they want. Why should the Internet be any different? If anything, it is even harder to control.” Neda (F, 19) suggested that from the other side, limitations will only make the Internet more attractive, especially for the young, and that in particular they will be attracted to and curious about the things to which they do not have access. These statements posit the impracticality and impossibility of governing the Internet through censorship technologies such as firewalls. Furthermore, the placement of such regulations is not only impractical, but can be counter-productive in the sense that it can actually attract people’s attention to the exact content that the conservative clerics seek to limit in the first place.
Two of the interviewees also voiced a criticism of Internet censorship through a criticism of the governing bodies wishing to perform the censorship. Ali (M, 21) stated, “I realize that right now there is a big political conflict about the Internet in the government and whether people’s use should be limited or not, but for me there is nothing problematic about using the Internet. For us [young Tehranis] it is mainly a good thing.” According to Ali, the majority of the problem is a government matter, and not much about it is problematic for everyday users. Reza (M, 23) extended this criticism by arguing that the conservatives in government, while they may say that it is a moral issue, are really concerned with social control. In essence, the argument follows that the conservatives are using morality as a defense of censorship, they are really mainly concerned about maintaining political power and displacing any activity that may hinder their political strength. These statements reveal a cynicism and an awareness of how state political power hinges on particular groups’ ability to maintain power. There is awareness that despite the power that the clergy holds, its power is not solid or unchanging.
While the majority of the interviewees supported full freedom of access to the Internet, a minority of voices indicated concerns about the prospects of such a reality. Parang (M, 19) stated that access to some sites, particularly ones which are anti-Islamic Republic, should be limited. When asked what kinds of sites would fit within this category, he suggested that these would primarily be pornographic sites that do not match the religious integrity of the Islamic Republic, as well as some political sites such as those from Israel or the Mujaheddin-e Khalq. Kaveh (M, 20), too, agreed that there should be some limits placed on mainly the “immoral” sites. I interviewed Kaveh simultaneously with another student, Siamak (M, 20), and the two entered into a heated debate on this topic. Kaveh felt adamant that the raising of limits would have some really negative social effects, while Siamak followed the argument that the Internet should be totally free, based on ideological grounds as well as the impracticality of governing it. “The problem,” Arshia (M, 19) related, “is that this is a new thing. So many questions, in particular questions of control, have yet to be worked out.” While most interviewees believed in complete freedom of access, a few held some real concerns about the potential socially harmful effects that could damage the political integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this sense, the issue of control among the interviewees is much more weighted toward the reformist government position, although since the issue is yet to be resolved in government, some significant tensions about levels of governance persists among the interviewees as well.
The other major area of contention concerned the issue of transnationalization, the “Farglisization” of “Iranian” culture through Internet consumption. Here I will focus on five interviews, three that viewed this as a very positive and two who perceived it as a very negative process. On the positive side, Amir (M, 18) stated that the Internet is a very important new way that transnational communication has opened up. People who live in different states have greater access to information from other places, which has the positive result of mutual cultural understanding. Siavash (M, 25) argued that the Internet will be particularly important for Iranians in terms of the positive effects of economic and human globalization. “People will be able to do more business together, mix more, and generally understand each other better.” From a different angle, Hamed (M, 19) stated, “It is important for us [Iranians] to connect more with other people in the world, especially after being closed off for so long. It is one of the ways through which we can stop from falling behind any further.” This last portion of Hamed’s statement is analogous to a neoliberal model of advanced and backward states. Hamed speaks from an awareness that Iran is one of the states that is “behind.” This sense of competition colors the other two much more positive responses of the benefits of transnational communications. It is difficult to match the sense of global cultural and economic togetherness in the first two responses with the third that stresses the importance of competition and the need to catch up. These are two sides of an argument for the significance of the Internet, but they are paradoxical when placed side by side. The concern for competition and global power in the last observation undercuts the tone of global cultural and economic harmony and exchange in the first two statements.
An added complication arises out of the concerns voiced by two of the interviewees in particular regarding the potentially negative effects of transnationalization through media consumption. Reza (M, 19) stated that he is very concerned about the effects of “foreign” (khareji) culture on “Iranian” culture, especially among the impressionable youth. The basic concern here is that the use of the Internet may cause young people to forget their own culture, as they become engulfed by the culture of the global media. This concern is problematic in its dichotomization of Iranian culture as somehow essential, unique, and separate from other cultures. The equation of the territorial state, Iran, with a specific singular culture is itself problematic. But at the same time the observation serves to criticize the full-fledged support of Internet use by some, thus throwing caution into the mix. Farid (M, 17) observed, “These are products from the West for a Western culture. How can we totally embrace them when we did not have much to do with their creation?” The logic of this statement hinges upon a separation based on nationalist grounds. But it suggests that in terms of competition among states within the context of global power relations, states such as the United States have a significant advantage having been the ones with the leading edge in developing Internet technologies. This lead has allowed them to invest based on what they believe is culturally significant, which may clash with social and cultural interests in Iran. Thus, “catching up” to the West will always be an elusive goal if the rules of the game are set by those states that are leading the development of Internet technologies.
The observations here about control are significant to the degree that they suggest the significant social complications to Internet use and adaptation. The most significant concerns raised are of a religious and/or nationalist nature, placed in tension with the experience of transnationalization. To some extent these concerns replicate those made by the conservatives in government, although the religious component is not as strong among the interviewees. The interviewees’ concerns over the regulation of the Internet are complex and divergent, based on factors such as nationalism, transnationalism, cynicism of government, the right to access, and social religious morality, among other things. The reasons for the divergences may be at least partially attributed to the fact the interviewees are responding much more to perceptions of how the Internet will bring about future social change, rather than being based on actually existing contemporary processes. In terms of both issues of utility and control, a futuristic tone, optimistic for the most part but pessimistic in parts, punctuates the responses.
The Spatial Politics of Internet Use and the Factor of Accessibility
The politics of control and usefulness converge within the spaces in which the Internet is utilized. These spaces, primarily the space of the home but also the newly emerging semi-public spaces of cybercafes, are the locations within which these conflicting issues of how to regulate and to use the Internet become realized. At the same time they are the spaces in which questions of use and control become transformed through the more immediately important constraint: accessibility. Examining the politics of spatial accessibility reveals both the enabling and constraining factors involved in young Tehran residents’ use of the Internet.
There are two main constraints to accessibility to the Internet that Said Shirazian (1999), an Internet support representative from DCI, identified in his interview: language and cost. Language is a problem in the sense that most of the material on the Internet is in English, and certainly only a very small portion is in Persian. Many interviewees also perceived language as a problem. Kourosh (M, 26), for example, admitted that his knowledge of English is very limited and thus that would keep him from being able to get the most of his use of the Internet. Furthermore, as stated in the previous section, the unavailability of Persian-text e-mail technology has been a problem for many. This problem has creatively been averted through the invention of “Farglisi,” but this has only been a limited solution. The fact that such a great deal of material is in a foreign language constantly reinforces for Iranians that they are using something that has its source outside their own country. Thus, language is a limitation to access in the sense that it produces a sense of cultural distance from the Internet for some.
The more explicitly spatial accessibility constraint is monetary cost. Of the 15 interviewees who had never used the Internet, cost was the biggest limiting factor. Leyla (F, 23) and Hamideh (F, 23), for example, both perceived expense be the main deterrent to their use; otherwise, they were both very excited about the prospects of learning someday soon. There were several interviewees, in fact, who were quite optimistic about the prospects of increased accessibility. Rahil (F, 19) and Amir (M, 18), for example, believed that with lowering costs access will increase.
At the same time, many of the interviewees were well aware of the significant limitations to accessibility, with cost being the most significant factor among others. One important factor that both Mohammad (M, 23) and Siamak (M, 20) pointed out is that use is very much limited to Tehran and that it is much more difficult to get access to the Internet in other provincial centers in Iran. Reza (M, 19), who grew up in Tehran but currently attends university in Ahvaz, stated that in comparison the Internet is both much more in the news and much more accessible in Tehran. Based on these comments, I proceed here with an awareness that Tehran is a unique example within the national context in which the Internet is more generally the most available. But considering that Internet use in Tehran is subjected to the processes of Iranian state formation from above, it is very much connected to state processes as well. The section above on control, in particular, establishes the linkage within state processes. At the same time, the use of Internet within Tehran is itself highly stratified. This stratification develops at a basic level between those who have access and those who do not. More significantly, though, there is a nuanced social stratification among the interviewees based upon the question of where they have Internet access.
The question of cost is especially significant in terms of home consumption of the Internet. Shirazian stated, “Many students now have some limited access to the Internet on university campuses, but to have a PC in the home is very expensive for Iranian families.” Sarmad (F, 18), a computer science undergraduate major who uses the Internet on campus, explained that she does not use it at home because to invest in a computer “for personal use at home is much more expensive.” At the same time, as both Siamak (M, 20) and Mohammad (M, 23) argued, access on university campuses is very limited because there are not enough resources for everyone. Of the interviewees only eight have home computers through which they can access the Internet. These are, furthermore, all students who also use the Internet on their university campuses, and they are all self-described as “upper-middle class” students. Among these eight, all admitted that they primarily use the Internet at home for e-mail exchange with friends, and for daily news information and entertainment. Having access to the Internet both at the university and in the home, they have been able to divide their use into professional applications at school and personal uses at home.
The availability of the Internet at home for these eight students allows them to have access to the Internet in a personal, private sense which the others do not possess. The students who use the Internet on campus do not have access at home to the leisure element of Internet use that the home users have. This is not to say that the home users do not have to live under the same processes of censorship and control described above; in fact, whichever servers they may be using have some degree of self-regulation already installed. But home users have access to an information and leisure source that is not one of the main “utilitarian” academic, commercial, and public-governmental uses sanctioned from above. In essence what makes this group’s use of the Internet different is a subversion of the state system’s identification of proper uses, even if this use is geared toward leisure, at the same time that the group differentiates itself not only from non-users but from non-home users as well. Thus, a corresponding relationship existed between the students who had home access and a self-identified “upper-middle-class” identity, which differentiates an elite group from the more general population that has access within public spaces.
Internet consumption among the interviewees, then, has significant implications for current processes of Iranian state formation. The ways in which the young Tehranis respond to questions of regulation and use both reflect a replication of certain central state concerns and a subversion of them. In some ways the interviewees reflect concerns expressed to varying degrees from both central state factions regarding the factors of cultural intrusion and penetration, although their responses suggest a class-based argument of regulation. The resistance element really develops in terms of leisure uses, the predominant type of Internet use that is not sanctioned from above. This use, though, is largely spatially and socially limited according to class differentiation. In essence, the experience of Internet use among the interviewees reveals the complex processes of political and social class identity formation, both between the interviewees and the working class and within strata of the interviewees themselves. What I am arguing is that to understand state formation as a process, we need to go beyond examining the social and political rules and regulations established by the state government, to understanding how these regulations are adhered to and subverted in everyday practice. Thus, access to the Internet is centrally tied to state formation in the ways that its surveillance are mediated; at the same time, access is closely tied to processes of class differentation.
To observe how these processes operate much more closely, I will turn to a particular set of Intranet technologies developed by one private server, Apadana, that has focused some of its attention toward this youth leisure market.
Apadana.Com: Chat Rooms, Polls, and the Formation of New Political Identities
This case study examines the ways that a particular group of upper-middle class young home-users of the Internet are subverting state rule, at the same time that they are carving an exclusive position for themselves within the state system. Apadana is a private Internet Service Provider with a website based outside of Iran, but which offers Internet service primarily in Iran. It offers both an Intranet service that does not access the Internet but includes certain web, ftp, email, and specialty local services and an Internet access service (Arabshahi 1998). According to an Apadana company supervisor, the company currently has approximately 2,000 non-corporate private home users, the majority of which are in their early 20s (Zand 1999). In fact, the company does not provide subcriptions for anyone under 18, but parents can and do subscribe on behalf of their teenaged offspring. Apadana’s Internet services are quite conventionally like those of most other private ISPs. Like the other private ISPs it has installed its own filters that keep out access to particular web sites, most commonly those of a pornographic nature. What sets the company apart is its attention to the development of specialty locally oriented dimensions. These dimensions include a chat room (otaq-e goftegoo, literally “conversation room”) and a continually running opinion poll (gusanjeh), both of which are included in its Intra-net (shabakeh-ye dakheli, or “internal network”) service that only Apadana subscribers can access.
The chat room is very popular, especially among young adults (Zand 1999). Because of the heavy volume of traffic that passes through Apadana’s system, she explained that many young people use the chat room service at night to communicate with each other. In fact, she stated that many parents have complained that their sons and daughters have been staying up too late communicating in the chat rooms from the spaces of their bedrooms and not paying enough attention to their studies. Going back to Apadurai’s virtual-spatial duality presented in the introduction to this chapter, while the idea of a “chat room” is more of a virtual than a physical type of space, it is connected to physical space in the very real way that the young people using these chat rooms are connecting through the privacy of their homes. Through this use, the home becomes a discreet leisure space for communication with friends and for making new friends. But it is also a space of resistance in the sense that it allows communication between unrelated men and women in a way that is not possible in public spaces. The chat room serves both private and public sphere purposes within the spatial reality of the space of the home. It is private in the sense that it is, at least up to the present, somewhat outside the regulation of public government, occurs in the private space of the home, and can involve intimate kinds of communication. At the same time it is public in the sense that it serves as a connection for many people and as a forum for meeting new people. Its purpose is largely leisure-oriented, but it allows its users the subversion of Islamic Republic laws.
The opinion polls, too, are important as a record of users’ views on a series of different topics, giving Apadana access to personal information about its users, and as a set of varied questions on the political and cultural lifestyles of the users. The major difference, other than the age-class specificity, is that these Intra-net polls ask many personal questions and are read and responded to in private spaces. In this sense, I argue that these polls operate across a public-private divide, whereas the polls discussed in Chapter 4 are primarily concerned with the construction of public political identities.
The topics covered in the Apadana polls include technological questions about hardware and software preferences; philosophical questions about life and marriage; entertainment-related questions; and political questions about contemporary Iranian political issues. The responses are not more than anecdotally important, since most questions had no more than 60 or 70 responses up to the time when the data were collected. This is more a reflection of the newness of the site than the popularity of the polls at the time of data collection (Apadana Intranet survey 1999). To the extent that they point to particular social, political leanings, and the fact that they seek to identify a particular social group through statistical methods, though, they deserve analysis.
I will briefly sum up some of the major areas of response. Most respondents identified themselves as nationalists and believe that Iranian culture is the most precious culture in the world, but at the same time the majority would choose to live in the United States, given the opportunity. The responses get at some of the tensions between nationalism and transnationalism described earlier in this chapter. It is interesting that while the respondents identify themselves as nationalists, their sense of nationalism is not necessarily wedded to territory; they can see themselves as Iranian nationalists living in the United States. In terms of government, Khatami, and reformist politics in general, were supported by most. Most were opposed to religious conservatism as well. For example, the majority of respondents were in support of the wearing of short-sleeved shirts, and they did not participate in the weekly Friday prayer sermons. These responses suggest that politically the majority of the participants in this Intranet are reformist-minded. At the same time as being very nationalistic, they are also very westernized and secular in terms of style of dress or desire to move elsewhere.
Other questions are very technical in nature, for example asking what type of CPU they use; entertainment-related, including questions such as who the respondents’ favorite Iranian film director is; or more personal, such as what is the right age for marriage, and what is better, knowledge or wealth. As a grouping, they form a semi-private, semi-public unofficial mechanism for the construction of a form of “public-private” opinion among a select group of young Tehran residents. The survey seeks to represent different dimensions of people’s views of their whole way of life. It is significant that computer technology-related questions are placed alongside philosophical, leisure-oriented, and political questions. Intranet service becomes the mechanism through which subscribers can voice their opinions and view the consensus-building process of the group as a whole. Like the chat room, the continuously running survey in itself is more of a virtual than a physical space, but it is a virtual space that connects a group of physical domestic spaces. Though private in the content of some of the questions and the location from which subscribers participate, this type of poll-taking becomes a kind of a public sphere at a very small scale within which the process of consensus-building is directed and developed. Access to this public sphere is limited by the ability to afford the costs of a personal computer, a basic level of computer know-how, a monthly subscription rate, and ample leisure time. In this sense, while the Apadana Intranet service is an example of a viable social-political virtual space for gathering, it is as of now a very limited medium for consensus building, based on limits to access. A solution being offered by some newly emerging companies to alleviate these limitations is the more public space of the Internet cafe.
The Internet Cafe: A Semi-Public Space of Access?
What exactly is an Internet cafe or a cybercafe? An article in the computer network monthly magazine Shabakeh, seeking to introduce the idea of the cybercafe to Iranians, describes it as the product of the long-lasting Western relation between intellectualism and caffeine, with the added technological addition of the computer (Shabakeh, July-August 1998: 87). In particular, this particular article argues that the cyber cafe provides an attractive setting for high-quality Internet access, Internet tutoring and training, and the selling of Internet-related merchandise in a friendly environment. Thus, the purpose of the Internet cafe is to provide an environment for sociability and education and to operate as an advertisement for Internet products and services. The very first cybercafe in Tehran was a non-permanent booth sponsored by the Internet Service Provider Neda Rayaneh during the 1998 Annual Book and Media Technology Fair. The sponsoring company offered free demonstrations and trial uses, as well as serving complementary beverages, for the people at the Fair. The first permanent cybercafe is called Rah-e Ayandeh (way of the future). During my stay in Tehran there were three in total, the other two being called Coffeenet and Rayanet. Subsequently, another one, Golestan, has opened, and there was even the rumor of a cybercafe located within a men’s sauna in Northern Tehran (Mirhabibi 1999).
The three cybercafes that I visited were all very different from each other. It is important to briefly describe each of these environments in order to gauge the extent to which they offer accessibility to non-home Internet users. All three charged an hourly fee for usage and offer complementary coffee, tea, and juices for their customers. Rah-e Ayandeh was the least expensive of the three, with an hourly rate of 2,000 toman, or 3,500 (2 to 4 dollars, approximately) for an hour-long personal instructional session. Hani Ashari (1999), an employee, stated that the users tend to be between the ages of 18 and 30; of middle to higher income background; and interested primarily in e-mail and academic and commercial research. At the time they had about 30-40 customers per day. Koulak Amanpour (1999), one of the owners, stated that there were many technical difficulties at first when the cybercafe was opened in the Winter of 1999, but in the Spring of the same year they installed a more technically advanced system. Amanpour said that they have never had a problem with state policing, but they do have their own filters in place which are mainly directed at preventing access to pornographic sites. In terms of appearance, Rah-e Ayandeh looks much more like a business office than a cafe. It is located in a central, busy point in “downtown” Tehran between the main financial centers and two of the biggest universities, Amir Kabir (formerly Tehran Polytechnic) and Tehran University, near the busy Vali ‘Asr Square. Located on the second floor of an office furniture store, its decor is very sparse: white walls, simple office furniture, and no decorations.
Coffeenet looks much more like a Western cafe, with modern Italian furniture, decorative posters, and the most high technology computers available. It is located in North-central Tehran, in the affluent Ekhtiarieh neighborhood. The hourly rate at Coffeenet was 3,500 toman (about 4 dollars), but Reza Mirhabibi, one of the owners, quickly defended the higher rate stating that they offer free tutoring for their users, in a calm environment, and with the best computers available (Mirhabibi 1999). He described the customers as generally between the ages of 25 and 40, with equal numbers of men and women, who are primarily interested in e-mail and research uses. He grouped their users as Iranians who are visiting from abroad, Iranians who use the Internet on a regular basis, and people who wish to learn who come for the free tutorials. Mirhabibi stated that they are attempting to work to attract Western tourists and businesspeople as well. Just recently, he explained, a high-level Kuwaiti minister came in to use their service. Coffeenet also has a filter that prevents access to pornographic sites.
Rayanet was the most basic of the cybercafes. I actually did not see any coffee or any beverages anywhere in sight during my visit. Located in a busy office building in North-central Tehran, it is actually a space that doubles as cybercafe and as a classroom for regular Internet classes. The cost at Rayanet was 2,000 toman (a bit over 2 dollars) for e-mail and 2,500 toman (almost 3 dollars) for Internet use. Mohammad Pourmahdian (1999), the primary manager, identified their users as foreigners and Iranian expatriates who are in Tehran for a short period of time, university students, and businesspeople. Rayanet receives its Internet access through Apadana, which includes Apadana’s filtering service as well.
One of the most significant recurring elements in interviews at the cybercafes was the insistence by several of the employees and owners that they are serving a valuable role by providing a space in which Internet access can be expanded. Mr. Davoodi (1999) of Rah-e Ayandeh stated, “This provides a way of getting out of the exclusivity of Internet use through extended access…. This space is becoming a center of information exchange, like a library.” Mirhabibi also expressed that their role is to provide “access for the public” and claimed that now different classes of people can have access if they wish. This public access, the idea of the Tehran cybercafe as a central site of information exchange, is limited in some ways. For one thing all cybercafes have some form of a filter in place. Amanpour and Mirhabibi both reflected that the spaces their cybercafes being public and mixed in gender, the viewing of pornography would be unacceptable. This is one form of censorship that prevails through all the cybercafes.
As a space of information access, leisure, and correspondence, the cybercafes operate much in the same way as coffeehouses have historically served as socially differentiated spaces of political and social exchange in Iran and the British coffeehouses in the Enlightenment formation of European public spheres (Habermas 1989). They have the similar exclusivities that privilege the bourgeoisie within an argument that claims universally extended access for anyone who may wish to enter. The differences are that in the Tehran cybercafes, gender inequalities are less apparent with equal numbers of men and women using the services, and transnational communication has replaced face-to-face interaction. It can be argued that the cybercafes are themselves a space for face-to-face interaction, through communication between employees and customers, customers with other customers, and the training and education process. Similarly, newspapers were very significant in European public spheres as a media carrying national and often transnational news that could then be discussed in the coffeehouses. But while in the British or Iranian coffeehouse the primary purpose of attendance was to discuss the matters of the day with others, the primary purpose of attending cybercafes is primarily to get information or e-mail at a transnational and sometimes national and local scale. In Enlightenment London national matters were the areas that received the greatest amount of attention, while in the contemporary Tehran coffeehouse it is transnational matters and concerns that attract the most attention. The last area of difference is the level of interaction between the medium and the consumer. While newspaper reading is passive, Internet use, especially with e-mail, can be more interactive. It is thus difficult to label the environment of the cybercafe as wholly “public” or “private,” because of the range of types of communication possible and the personal nature of working individually with a computer screen and a keyboard. Correspondence and information sharing on the Internet cannot be reduced to definitions of public or private; it is really simultaneously both. It is thus essential not to simply perceive the cybercafe as a public space for the formation of a public sphere; in qualitative terms of how the space is used, it cannot be deemed as wholly “public.”
In terms of access for middle to working class people, Rah-e Ayandeh is physically much more accessible than Coffeenet or Rayanet, being located nearer the poor Southern neighborhoods of Tehran. The costs, too, must be considered; while 2,000 toman (about two dollars) might not seem a lot to some, in terms of working-class wages it is substantial. Also, the time cost must be considered; the leisure time to spend an afternoon at a cybercafe is much more a marker of affluence than it is a real possibility for the working class of Tehran, unless the individual happens to be unemployed or underemployed, in which case the monetary question of cost becomes even more significant. The social role that the cybercafes play is much more significant for the lives of more affluent young Tehran residents, as well as expatriate Iranians and foreigners visiting the country. As an advertisement for the Golestan cybercafe reads in the English-language newspaper, Tehran Times, “We speak your language.” (Tehran Times, September 16, 1999:9) The cybercafes in Tehran are geared much more toward these groups, as well as any affluent Tehranis unfamiliar with the Internet who may wish to learn, but it seems very unlikely that they will extend Internet access to the working class.
Conclusion: The Subversive Spatial Politics of Leisure
The spatial politics of Internet use, most importantly through the question of accessibility, significantly redefines and redraws the political significance of Internet use. The politics of use and control both are affected by the social factor of accessibility. Use and utility are constrained by the types of use people can have in different kinds of spaces and more generally the types of people who have access to different kinds of uses. Public environments such as universities primarily enable academic uses, while the cybercafes and home personal computers enable more personal entertainment, information, and leisure-oriented practices. The fact that there is a division not only between those who have access and those who do not, but also between the types of space in which people have access significantly colors how they can use the technology. Leisure uses are much more limited, even within the middle class.
The politics of control are also redefined through this exclusive upper-middle class type of leisure use. The types of uses officially sanctioned by the state government, primarily academic, religious, and business uses, are challenged by this other kind of use with its own developing social institutions, such as the running polls, the chat rooms, and the cybercafes. In this sense what is a matter of leisure-time activity also becomes a political force, because it provides the bases from which a new democratic public sphere is being formed. At the same time this is a highly limited form of a public sphere to which access is bounded according to social class and age. Constructions of gendered difference, at least among the interviewees, appear to be much less a source of constraint, as no gender-specific patterns in use or access could be established. In this sense, the new electronic public sphere being formed holds some potential for gender-based equalization.
It may seem unusual to argue leisure-time activities to be such a pivotal force in the politics of Internet use and the politics of public sphere formation. Considering both the normative political potential of some of the types of leisure-time uses, though, they are a political force of growing significance. The chat rooms and running polls, for example, are both highly interactive media forms and hold the potential for a kind of political, cultural, and social consensus-building process that has not existed in recent Iranian history. Considering the political control over cultural forms such as different media in the twentieth-century history of Iran, too, this type of leisure-time activity is a form of subversive resistance to state-sanctioned ideas of media use. This leisure dimension of Internet use is politically important for the ways in which it is highly exclusively performed by an upper-middle class. As the Internet comes more into general use as satellite dishes have, it could become more socially inclusive as well. As it is being used now, though, it is the base from which a new simultaneously nationalist and transnational political public sphere around a specific upper-middle-class identity is being formed.
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