Student demonstrations in Iran this week are the latest episode in a cycle of protest and government repression that has gripped the Islamic republic since a contested election last June. It’s an age-old political tale, but this one comes with a new twist: Students have bypassed government control of the streets by taking to the Internet, where tools like Facebook and Twitter have helped inform and mobilize their cause. The government has responded by trying to stamp out opposition Web sites like hot spots in a wildfire, and even attempted to cut off Internet access altogether.
What’s happening in Iran illustrates how our world is shrinking — on two fronts. As globalization connects people along lines from trade to environmental issues to epidemics, the Internet is connecting us on another plane. Facebook, with its more than 350 million active users worldwide, would already qualify as the third most populous nation on earth. And it’s not just Facebook. Every day, communities gather, converse and work together without ever coming into physical proximity with one another.
What does this have to do with Tooele County? Fifty years ago, you would have had to stretch to find a causal relationship between our corner of the world and Iran. Today the connections are obvious. Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Dugway Proving Ground has stealthily moved to the forefront of global counterterrorism training, including training in detecting weapons of mass destruction. Dugway is the largest employer in Tooele County. It doesn’t take much to connect those dots.
Earlier this month, I spent a week in Washington, D.C., on a competitive fellowship from the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland. The purpose of the fellowship was to help journalists better report on our two shrinking worlds. Our group of 21 foreign- and domestic-based journalists heard from experts on foreign policy and social media networking. We had an interview session with the State Department spokesman and listed to new media guru and New York University professor Jay Rosen. (A man who can boast of some 30,000 Twitter followers, incidentally.) One evening, I sat by John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA at dinner, where we chatted about my old stomping grounds in Southeast Asia and his time in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It was a stimulating week, but it left me with questions, as well as answers. Where did our newspaper, and journalism in general, fit into these two shrinking worlds? The possibilities of journalism have never seemed broader, yet the traditional employers of journalists, the large metro newspapers, are stumbling to their knees one after another across the country. Bloggers and citizen journalists are moving in to fill some of the gaps, but they often seem to be preaching only to their specific choirs. Meanwhile, the old ethics — accuracy, fairness, balance, attribution — like the old order, are changing.
The week also left me wondering about our county’s place in the world. The biggest marijuana grow in our history was discovered this year near Ophir and connected to Mexican cartels. This spring, Dugway hired native Afghans to play Taliban soldiers in order to train our troops for a war we’ve just recommitted to in a major way. Chinese-made goods line the shelves of the Tooele Wal-Mart and, increasingly, the medications our local doctors prescribe are being produced by India’s booming pharmaceutical industry.
The challenge for our newspaper is to make sense of these global trends on a local level.
Then, on Monday, I got the news that after more than 20 years in operation the Knight Center itself would close at the end of this month — another casualty, apparently, of dried-up funding for journalism.
It was one more reminder that as our world shrinks on two fronts, opportunities abound, and the only certainty will be change itself.