Hossein Derakhshan “The scariest aspect of all these changes is that the internet is becoming like TV.”

Hossein is the “blogfather of Iran”, having spent years as a journalist writing about the importance of the open internet. In 2008, he was sentenced to 19.5 years in jail because of his writing. After serving 6 years, he was released. When he finally got online again he was heartbroken to learn that the rich, diverse, and free web that he fought for was dying. Decentralized, independent blogs had been replaced by social media and apps. Hyperlinks, the currency of the open web, were limited or not allowed. (Ever try to put some links into an Instagram post?) Since then, Hossein has been working to raise awareness about what it means to have an open internet, and how that is connected to other socio-political issues.


The Story

Can you tell me a bit about your work?

I used to be a popular blogger. I started in Canada, in the mid-2000s, introducing the idea of blogging to people in Iran from downtown Toronto. Soon thousands of blogs were created, written by Iranians in Persian. In the beginning, I had a problem with language because unicode was not popular yet. After a few months, I discovered that Blogger.com had begun supporting unicode. This made it possible to write in Persian. I wrote a step-by-step guide for Blogger. Then, a few months later, some engineers in Iran managed to launch their own blogging platform. It became a huge thing in Iran. I facilitated this boom in blogging; this was around 2001–2002.

I have a background in sociology and media studies and was a tech journalist in Iran before leaving for Canada. I was fascinated by of these new technical tools. I wanted to introduce and promote them. At the time, the internet was not available in Iran except for small group of people, and they mostly used email and BBS (bulletin boards). I was writing for a reformist newspaper, which was subsequently shut down. I wrote a column called Rear Window. It was popular. I named it after the Alfred Hitchcock film. It was a window to a new world, namely internet.

I discovered blogs after 9/11. I was looking for American reactions and perceptions of the meaning of 9/11. Some of what I found was on these things called “weblogs”. They fascinated me. At that time, I had moved to Toronto and wanted to re-connect to the audience that I lost touch with because I had left Iran. When I started blogging I used to write about tech. I started technical and then became more political. This coincided with the invasion of Iraq and all of that mess by George Bush.

I was critical of the Iranian regime, even though I became less critical as threats to Iran increased. I wrote a lot of harsh and critical things. Also I provided technical consulting services to state-run Persian-language services media services, such as the BBC and Radio Free Europe. I went to Israel publicly as a Canadian freelance journalist. I was arrested in 2008 after I returned to Iran and eventually sentenced to a long (19.5 years) prison sentence.

I was suddenly disconnected from this world for a long time. I was pardoned 2014. When I came out I discovered that blogs were dead. When I tried to restart a new blog I realized it was not the same space anymore. Many bloggers had stopped. I reflected on this and realized that the key shift was the decline of hyperlinks and the concept of the stream — because of social media. By killing links, social media have started to kill the web itself. So I started writing, thinking, theorizing, and eventually wrote a piece for Matter magazine on Medium. It turned out to receive a lot of attention and was translated into many languages and published around the world. I had managed to articulate what millions were feeling. Especially for my generation — the generation of the web. It became an argument for why the shift was happening.

What does success look like for you?

I see my work as a kind of activism. I’m looking at this much beyond tech. The open web had such amazing socio-political potential that is now being lost. Many things we see in the world are very connected. I can’t convince myself, for example, that the demise of open borders and increased concerns about border security and immigration is not coming from same mindset that is unfriendly toward open web. It is not a coincidence. I see them connected somehow. I see this tech activism as a form of socio-political activism that is important to a more diverse and peaceful world. Ideally speaking, I believe that if Mozilla tried to reframe its work as something more sociopolitical it would have a wider impact and more people get involved in it — and they could utilize a lot of energy already there to care about these issues.

How about an example of a challenge?

My biggest challenge now is the lack of space for a serious kind of thinking and research about the socio-political implications about the decline of the open web. I know that Mozilla has some fellowships. But the fellows selected are more technical — more coders — the focus is on technical aspects rather than socio-political. It’s true — a big part is technical. With the rise of the mobile phone it is even harder to create hyperlinks. This used to be easier on a desktop, where you can simply select and link. This is one of reason that links are in decline. It has been challenging to situate or position myself within a research group or even an activist or advocacy organization.

How have you approached solving this?

I’m launching a project to provoke thinking about hyperlinks: Link-age. Link-age will work with artists, collecting artworks that promote idea of links and openness and diversity. It will criticize or parody the social media space. I’m looking to work with galleries, museums or art spaces to launch the project.

I’ve also suggested to Mozilla to fund a few documentaries about what we are losing, about this shift and how important it is for the future — for new generations and for peace. Another idea is to start a think tank to study different aspects of the open web. These are all projects to overcome these challenges.

How would you describe the open internet?

The open internet is very close idea to what the web used to be, except the centralized DNS aspect. The rest of it was very decentralized and open. I’m not an expert on internet protocol or TCP/IP, but my understanding is that Domain Name Servers were the only part that was not open and decentralized, it was run by that body, ICAN, but the rest was open and decentralized. We don’t need to re-imagine an open space. It existed. But it is now being challenged. It is dominated by aliens who do not respect the basic rule of this planet: hyperlinks.

The scariest aspect of all these changes is that the internet is becoming like TV. This is scary because it was an alternate space for someone who wanted to do something intellectual. For people who read books and serious magazines to connect with each other. Now that space has been shut down. Like TV, it is becoming a medium that benefits people like Trump, Berlusconi, and Erdoğan — the demagogues. Have you watched the election primaries in the US? The Democratic convention is a reality show. It is the ultimate form of TV show — with emotions all over the place and no substance. The Republican convention was the same way. The form of TV has expanded. Text disappeared in favor of video and images. Yet text has such a capacity and power to convey complex ideas. It should be cherished and revived. I keep coming back to Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It is so relevant. I just tweeted one of his interviews form the 80s. For a short time, the web was an alternative.

Can you tell me about how you got involved with Mozilla? What has that been like?

I was invited to Mozfest last year but did not manage to go. I talked to them and suggested I could make a short video summarizing my essay in Matter. They agreed, although it didn’t end up getting played at Mozfest. Then I found out about the Mozilla fellowships. Got to meet a few Mozilla people at a conference in Europe. I started to think about how Mozilla, who shares this vision of open web, can be more effective.

Can you tell me about a time that Mozilla had some sort of impact on your life or work?

I remember as a browser Firefox was really exciting. At the time, IE dominated the market and it was really crappy and I didn’t like Netscape for simple visual reasons. I was excited. Around 2002–2003 I started using it exclusively. Even got rid of the IE icon from my desktop, and I was pissed when I saw others using IE. Firefox introduced tabs. This even further diversified people’s experience of working on the web. It made it more nonlinear. This is a big part of the open web. What Firefox did with those tabs was pretty fascinating and important.

Can you tell me about a time that Mozilla did not meet your expectations?

I think Mozilla is kind of lost now. They don’t know how to advocate for an open web. Their focus is too technical. They are probably not open enough to the world. With this huge network of people — and all of these coders — you would think some collaborative open system would emerge to generate ideas on how we can revive the open web. And then work on these ideas. Even ways of crowdfund it. I expect them to open up this structure. Imagine a Wikipedia-type of model that would benefit these causes, crowdfunding these sorts of websites and tools. A Github model for example. There are a lot of ways Mozilla can expand its reach and engage millions more people around the world. But they need to see a little bit beyond technical aspects.

How might the stories we collect might be useful to you?

If these were videos you could make a great documentary. Maybe not for the broader public, more to distribute among Mozilla connected people and to other groups who have the same goals and causes, and with partner organizations.

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