There is nothing we can do here," Simonovic says, smiling. It is a smile I have come to loathe, although I'm smiling the same way. "You must fax this letter to the foreign ministry in Belgrade, and they will give us permission to issue you a visa." How long will that take? I ask. "Three, maybe five weeks. I do not know." Separated by a few feet of dingy carpeting in the basement of the Yugoslavian consulate in Berlin, we smile. Novica Milic, my Serbian advocate, then begins one final assault. Milic (pronounced Mil-itch) had offered to shepherd me into Belgrade after we met in Berlin at a conference, Data Conflicts: Cyberspace and the Geo-Politics of Eastern Europe. Milic and Simonovic speak in a slur of Serbian, which I cannot understand. But the smiles stay the same. On the way out, walking into the drizzly Berlin morning, I ask if I should have offered a bribe. "No," Milic says, lighting his umpteenth cigarette. "With the situation in Belgrade, no one wants to take any chances."
Getting into Serbia in December of 1996 is not easy, and hacking this puzzle has become something of a desperate obsession for me. I realize now, with growing dread, the monumental stupidity of my first move, when I dutifully filled out the visa application, including the little box titled "Profession," where I wrote journalist. Had Milic been with me then, none of this would have happened. Milic thinks I should have lied and put down student. I think student is a bad idea. After all, it is the students in Belgrade who are leading the daily protests that are threatening to topple Slobodan Milosevic, the authoritarian president of what's left of Yugoslavia. No, if I had to do it over again, I would put down computer programmer - a computer programmer on holiday. Then again, it was programmers, along with students, who had turned the Net into a weapon in Belgrade.
Events in the Yugoslavian capital have overshadowed the Data Conflicts conference, which, when it was Ţrst planned a year ago, was intended to explore how cyberspace is altering the political dynamic in Eastern Europe. Many of these nations - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic - have spent most of their history under authoritarian rule, first under the rule of kings and then under communist régimes controlled by the Soviet Union. One hallmark of their histories - a trait they all share - was that information was always strictly controlled by the state. After the revolutions of 1989 to 1991, when the Soviet empire collapsed, these states entered a transitional phase supposedly leading to the creation of democratic systems and a loosening of state control over the media. The Data Conflicts conference was planned to explore how computer networks, especially the Internet, are influencing this transition toward democracy - perhaps supporting it, perhaps not. The question was left open.
Then came November 19, the day the protests began, and shortly after, students at the University of Belgrade opened a Web site promoting their cause. In a very real sense, these protests in Serbia are the first mature example of the Internet playing a role in a popular uprising against an authoritarian régime. Just as Vietnam first showed the impact television could have on a war, this struggle is the first large-scale conflict where the Internet is playing a significant role. The implications are enormously important for the future, and the events in Serbia are being closely watched by governments around the world - especially the Chinese government, which is concerned about the role an expanded Internet could play in that country. The student protests are producing data on whether expanded access to information is utterly inconsistent with authoritarian government, whether it's impossible to have both a modern information-based economy and a dictator, and whether, therefore, the Internet is innately predisposed to undermine such régimes. In Serbia, this assumption is being tested for the first time.
At the conference, several speakers addressed this issue, among them Robert Horvitz. An American living in Prague, Horvitz works for the Open Society Institute, the prodemocracy foundation funded by billionaire George Soros with a mandate to expand Internet connectivity in the Czech Republic. Horvitz's talk in part recounted Eastern Europe's loss of innocence, as waning US interest in promoting the First Amendment in the former Soviet empire, combined with local government passivity and a growing concentration of media, led to a stagnation of traditional press freedoms. Yet at the same time, Horvitz pointed out, the growth of Internet hosts in Eastern Europe is rapidly accelerating. According to Horvitz, the number of officially registered hosts in Yugoslavia went from none in October 1995 to 1,447 only one year later. How would this jibe with attempts to constrain old media, like radio and television?
Lofty speculation about how the Internet would affect attempts to control media came slamming down to earth in Serbia. On December 3, the Net brieţy captured center stage in Belgrade when the Milosevic régime took Radio B92 off the air. B92, then Belgrade's only radio station that wasn't under state control, had for two weeks been broadcasting updates on the growing protests in the streets. When Milosevic unplugged B92, the broadcasts were rerouted via the Net using RealAudio. The Voice of America and the BBC also picked up the dispatches, resending them to Serbia via shortwave. Two days later, Milosevic allowed B92 to broadcast again, giving the opposition an important symbolic victory, and inspiring the students to start calling their struggle "the Internet Revolution."
I had listened to those RealAudio dispatches from my home in Manhattan. They were savvy, designed to appeal to the world media. The action had worked, luring more media to Belgrade and creating additional pressure on the régime, which now had to contend with the watchful eyes of CNN and company. And now, from my Berlin hotel room, I stare at CNN's footage of the mounting protests in Belgrade. I am moving closer to the action but seem destined to remain watching only media images of the real thing. I decide to take one last chance. I will fly down to Munich, where Yugoslavia has another consulate, and I'll reapply as a computer programmer - hoping to somehow slip by. I'll try to get the visa in the morning, then hurry to the airport in time to join Milic on his afternoon flight to Belgrade. If all goes well, I'll be sleeping that night in Milic's house, a few miles from ground zero.
The next day, I stand in line in the crowded consulate in Munich, anxiously looking at my watch. From time to time an enormous Serb with a stupendous bicycle-handle mustache, a metal detector in his hand, bellows at us while we shuffle in one direction or the other to make him happy. When my turn comes, I find - to my relief - that there is no central computer network connecting the Yugoslavian embassies, no up-to-date list of prohibited persons. Instead, these consulates are a relic of communist kitsch, harboring a near-reverence for multicolored rubber stamps and a fascination with paper, especially "originals." Information opacity can work both ways - and I use it to my advantage. Twenty minutes later I get my passport back with a very nice, multicolored stamp that signifies I can enter Yugoslavia. I have hacked the system.
Belgrade is a city caught in amber, straddling two eras, immobile. It reminds me of Moscow in 1990, where I'd spent several months. The infrastructure - buses, streets, telephones - harks from the days of socialist brotherhood, encrusted with dirt, somehow patched together and still functioning; yet peppered throughout are the icons of mass consumer culture, mostly advertisements for fast food and foreign cars. These serve only to increase the surrealism of the surroundings, to create an illusion of intimacy with the rest of Europe, offering endless opportunities for irony.
Built on a peninsula, bordered on one side by the Sava River and the other by the Danube, Belgrade is hilly, with five-story buildings eventually giving way to taller structures in the city center, toward the apex of the peninsula. The center of that city center is Republic Square. Like many European capitals, Belgrade is a delight for revolutionaries because of the concentration of government buildings all within walking distance. Unlike, say, Los Angeles, which sprawls willy-nilly, Belgrade seems designed to be shut down.
An hour after our arrival in Belgrade, Milic and I have checked in at his house and hopped into a cab to make the short drive to Republic Square. As we move through the traffic-clogged streets, signs of normalcy slowly evaporate. Milic is anxious to press on, anxious to see his wife. Somewhere in the crowd ahead she is waiting for our arrival. Milic has been growing a beard and a ponytail. In a picture I'd seen at his house, taken in better times, Milic was clean-shaven and had startlingly good looks, like an Italian movie star. Now he has the brittle, haggard look of a man on a continuous adrenaline high. The flesh under his thumbnails has turned a caramel brown from cigarettes, which he smokes in a continuous, fluid cycle.
Milic bears superficial resemblance to the classic image of the European intellectual. He works full time at the Institute for Literature and Arts in Belgrade, a kind of think tank for theorists, and his specialty is contemporary theories of discourse. He also is an active proponent of cyberspace's virtues. The genesis of the Yugoslav Computer Communications Association (YUCCA), the only organization of its kind in Yugoslavia, took place in Milic's apartment in January 1994. YUCCA, with several hundred members, started as more of a hobbyists club, with an emphasis on getting more access to computer technology, like email. In the past year it has mutated toward a political advocacy group, promoting freedom of information. Milic told me the organization's next step is to remake itself in the image of the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Milic also is responsible for a form of public outreach. Since March 1996, he's published a monthly essay in Rec (Word), Serbia's leading literary monthly magazine, where he's advanced the idea of the Internet as a communications medium that can build networks of conversations. Milic functions as a connective tissue, linking the hacker and student cultures with Serbia's intelligentsia. His essays give meaning to the sudden arrival of the Internet as more than a novelty, showing how what at first appeared to be a toy can be used for serious ends.
It's almost 5 p.m., almost time for the mass march, which winds its way around the city center to climax at Republic Square with an hour of speeches, made by opposition leaders and noted persons who support the opposition coalition known as Together. Together precipitated this crisis by winning majorities in local elections held on November 17. The coalition should have been given control of 14 large cities, including Belgrade. Instead, President Milosevic annulled the results. Two days later the first protests began, and they've since snowballed, averaging 100,000 people daily, sometimes spiking up to 300,000. The sudden emergence of a democratic alternative to Milosevic has garnered strong international support. The US State Department and the European Community have both threatened the possible reimposition of UN sanctions if the vote is not honored. Part of the opposition's international success, Milic explains, is the simplicity of their cause: honor the election. As a communications director might say, this has "clearly defined objectives."
We get out of the taxi near Belgrade City Hall. The street it faces is devoid of traffic, and people amble along the center of the road, headed in the same direction as us. "You see here," Milic says, pointing at city hall. The walls are splattered with bits of eggshell, yolk, and bloody-red paint. "And here," he points up, at a second floor window slathered in dried yolk. "That was a good one." If the election results had been upheld, a mayor from the Together coalition would be in there now. The thrown eggs symbolize outrage. Outrage at the régime. "Eggs are a kind of weapon for us," Novica tells me in his Serbian-accented English. "So is the noise."
The noise. I'd first heard the noise through the RealAudio broadcasts - digitized, packetized, rerouted from the streets of Belgrade. It had arrived with a broken, tinny stuttering quality, compressed into a faint mirror of what I now hear emanat-ing from Republic Square, five minutes from where we now are. This noise, the real noise, is much deeper. It vibrates and seduces, a low rolling sound drawing us forward, toward its epicenter. It is the noise of 100,000 people - the sort of noise that makes you want to make noise - a contagious noise.
As Milic and I approach the crowd, the sound resolves itself into thousands of fragments - whistles blowing, drums beating, music playing, people clapping and cheering in unison. People of all ages are milling about, carrying signs and flags, blowing on plastic whistles, the kind you might find handed out at an all-night rave. In the center of the square, a jeep is parked. A stage with a mobile loudspeaker system has been built on its roof and sides. This obviates the need for an official permit, which is required the moment the stage touches public property and would, apparently, be denied. On top of the stage leaders of Together take turns speaking to the crowd. Whenever the name Milosevic is uttered, it triggers sonic pandemonium, as thousands of people blow their whistles - as if the noise could somehow drive Milosevic away.
One landmark juts out from the crowd: a glowing plastic billboard, lit from the inside, showing a bald eagle flying over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The tag line, in Serbian, reads "Winston: Taste of Freedom." As I'm trying to decode this cacophony of symbols, a young man walks by, holding a circuitboard glued to a stick which he waves over his head. A few days earlier, the students had decided to name their revolution: the Internet Revolution. For now, this is my only encounter with anything resembling a computer in Serbia.
Milic has a destination in mind, a thin birch tree off to the side of the crowd. It's the only birch tree in Republic Square, and it serves as an informal meeting point for the users of Sezam Pro, which reminds me of a smaller version of The Well. Sezam Pro, with 3,000 users and 22 dialup lines, is the closest thing to an online community in Serbia. Milic has been a user from the very beginning, back in 1990, when it started out as an affiliate BBS of Racunari (Computers, in Serbo-Croatian), a popular computer magazine in Serbia.
Sezam Pro, along with the Internet gateways at the University of Belgrade and Radio B92, is one of the three main points linking Serbia to the Net and the outside world. During my five days in Belgrade, I managed to visit each one, and I discovered how they are intimately connected through a web of users - people who, in one way or another, form a nascent digital culture in Serbia, a culture on the forefront of organizing these protests, a culture without whose cooperation and support the Internet would not exist as a political weapon.
Every revolution has it symbols, Milic tells me, and in Belgrade three symbols had come to encapsulate this struggle: the egg, the whistle, and the Net.
After the protest had ended for the day, Milic and I, now joined by his wife, Aleksandra Mancic, walk for five minutes down a steep side street to the offices of Sezam Pro, which share space with Sezam Pro Café, Belgrade's only cybercafé. Mancic, who goes by the nickname Sasha, is a professor of Spanish literature at the University of Belgrade. She's young looking (both Milic and Mancic are 40), with large owlish glasses, and she doesn't stop smiling. I ask her about the fun everyone seems to be having. "Revolution has become a habit for us," she says, delighted. "People are wondering what they will do when it ends."
It's Tuesday night, time for the weekly informal meeting of "Sezamians," as Milic calls them. The café is on the second floor of a mall, down a stucco-walled hall designed to look like a Greek summer house. The café has four PCs, connected by a local network to the Sezam Pro hosts stuck in a metal closet in the wall, which in turn are connected to the Net by a 128-Kbps leased line. Tables have been pushed together in the hallway, where a dozen people sit drinking beer and smoking. They're all youngish looking, mostly male.
That a computer culture evolved at all in Serbia is surprising. Under communist rule in the 1980s, Yugoslavia had a fairly liberal import policy toward PCs, and thousands of Sinclairs, Ataris, and Amigas made their way into the country. But Yugoslavia was under UN sanctions from 1992 to 1995, as punishment for Milosevic's support of Serbian militias that waged war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, leading to the worst European mass murders since 1945. The sanctions were lifted in the fall of 1995, rewarding Milosevic for supporting the Dayton peace accords that ended the Balkan war, and computer imports increased dramatically. According to Dejan Ristanovic, editor of PC Press, a popular computer magazine published in Belgrade, there are 400,000 to 600,000 people in Serbia with computers either at work or at home. But of these, he estimates, no more than 10,000 have access to the Internet.
With 10,000 potential users, the Net's influence in Serbia is out of proportion to the numbers. In part this reflects the demographics of who has access. The core group is students and faculty at the University of Belgrade, which in 1988 had the first Internet host in Yugoslavia. Students in Belgrade have a history of spearheading antigovernment demonstrations. With 60,000 people enrolled at the university, the unintended effect is to concentrate those members of society with the least to lose. The students led street protests in March 1991 in opposition to the looming Balkan war. And in July 1992, after the imposition of UN sanctions, they took to the streets again to try to oust Milosevic. In both cases, few in the outside world paid attention, and Milosevic successfully sent in tanks and riot police to end the protests. Both uprisings, according to students I spoke with, taught a valuable lesson: without media attention they were powerless in the face of physical force.
So on November 19, 1996, when students in the department of electrical engineering began trying to organize an ofŢcial protest committee, one of their first actions was to set up a Web site on the department's server. The purpose was to draw international attention to the events in Belgrade, to lure the media shield closer, close enough that Milosevic would have much more to lose this time around.
At the table in the hallway, conversation turns to this question of the Net's role in the revolution. I can follow the conversation because most of the Sezamians here speak English, the lingua franca of the computer world. Miroslav Radosavljevic, known on Sezam Pro by the username Oldtimer, is a hacker of sorts who runs his own prepress publishing business using a few PCs. "In '91 we were not prepared," he says. "We thought we were stronger than we were, and we went too far too fast. Now we have the Net, and it makes a difference. We get more overseas reporting because of the Net, which stays Milosevic. This is why we call this the Internet Revolution. It has led to real support from people outside."
One of the women at the table nods in assent. Nina Milic (no relation to Novica Milic) goes by the username Kali. She radiates good humor and confidence - as if the revolution has already been won in some profound, private way. With long black hair and Elvis Costello glasses, Kali looks like a student; she is, however, a lawyer, in her mid-30s. After a year on Sezam Pro, she's become a devoted user, finding a new community and a form of virtual freedom. For Kali, it is as if the events on the streets, in physical space, were playing catch-up to the events behind the screen - that freedom of thought will inexorably lead to freedom from fear. She sees the Net as a bridge to the outside, a crucial link emboldening the protests by showing, once and for all, that the régime no longer has a monopoly on information, or on people's thoughts. "I think that without the Internet," she says, "not so many people would care about what is happening here."
If that's the case, then why doesn't the régime cut the Internet connections and bring the network down? "They cannot," says a man wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. Dusko Tomasevic is his name, and he's an electrical engineering student - and, to my surprise, a politician. At age 24 he narrowly lost an election to represent his municipal district in Belgrade. But the election was annulled, denying many Together candidates their rightful place in city hall. Tomasevic says that as the protests began, the police came to inspect the small computer room, controlled by students, in the basement of the electrical engineering department. It was a kind of veiled threat that they were watching and knew who was responsible for this Web site.
"The police told the students to shut it down, but they cannot," Tomasevic says, subdued, matter-of-fact. "We have mirror sites now in Europe and North America, and if they shut down the Belgrade server we can directly modem the information overseas. To stop that they will need to shut down every telephone in Serbia - which is impossible."
There is something about computers that seems to promote a certain culture, wherever in the world you may be. Some call this a hacker culture, others simply the computer culture. It is an eerie phenomenon to witness, because it implies that people react to technology in a similar way, whatever their environment may be. The cardinal ethic that binds the users of Sezam Pro with, for instance, users of The Well or other homegrown BBS and Internet providers is the virtue of information transparency. The idea is that a system - whatever it may be - should be transparent, its topology visible to the uninitiated. In the case of software, this means supporting the continuing role of freeware and shareware, Unix, and TCP/IP - systems whose source code remains visible, uncompiled. In the case of politics, it means supporting systems where what you choose is what you get, according to a clear, transparent process.
The antithesis of information transparency is information opacity - the inability to distinguish the constituent parts of a system and how they interplay. Opacity is the absolute prerequisite for successful thought control, and the essential tool wielded by the Serbian régime of Slobodan Milosevic through state control of nearly all media. Milosevic has resisted turning the cities over to the opposition because with these political victories comes the right to grant television and radio licenses. With free media, all the subterfuge and dissembling of the régime mutates from threatening to comically absurd - the lie becomes a joke.
In Serbia, the epicenter of deadly serious good humor has been the University of Belgrade, especially the electrical engineering and mathematics departments. In 1991 and 1992, these two departments fielded a disproportionate number of the student protesters, and in 1996, engineering and mathematics were the first departments to organize student leadership committees, designed to organize and motivate protesters in the streets. The departments are also the most wired - both pioneered the creation of Internet hosts in Yugoslavia and public computer rooms for their students.
These two departments were, in the heyday of communist rule, known for their nonideological faculties. This partly reflects the nature of engineering and math as Ţelds where theorems work or don't work, regardless of political dogma. Laws of thermodynamics still apply, whether you believe in collectivization or free markets. Built into these disciplines are the requirements of scientiŢc experimentation, which is based on a community of scientists sharing information, information which must be transparent. Because experiments cannot be veriŢed or tested without transparency, students in these faculties were given wider latitude to read foreign periodicals, and with the advent of the Net, they were given a communications tool to confer with their peers worldwide. That same Net was just waiting to be used in late 1996.
On the night of November 17, hours after Milosevic announced the annulment of the elections, messages appeared in the Sezam Pro politics conference calling for mass demonstrations. For many people online, this was the first news of Milosevic's decision. Several students from the electrical engineering and mathematics departments took the lead in posting on Sezam Pro and organizing the first protest, which helped put 20,000 people on the street two days after Milosevic's announcement. But their very first move was to set up a Web site.
One of the leaders is Stanimir Miljkovic, a tall charismatic student who physically led the first day of protests, marching at the front of the crowd. He's now shepherding me down into the basement of the electrical engineering department, to a room guarded by unarmed students at all hours. The Web site managed out of this room received 22,000 hits last week, with another 15,000 hits on the site at the math department. "At first," Miljkovic says, "the university would not give us permission to run the site. The computer room administrator is a Milosevic supporter. Then we found a professor who vetoed the computer-room administrator and said we could do it."
The room is small, with taped-over windows and three computers that can't be seen from the door because they're behind a partition. A meeting is under way, with four students talking about updating the Web site with the day's information. The site displays the day's news, with an English translation, and leads to photos from Republic Square, messages of support, and press clippings. A ticker at the top of the page rattles off the latest breaking news: Students in Nis, Serbia's second-largest city, organized a 120-mile march from Nis to Belgrade, and the protesters are just entering Republic Square ...
According to Miljkovic, students in other Serbian cities are developing daily protests of their own. The nationwide efforts are coordinated through online discussions and email postings, ensuring a uniŢed front. "We have regular meetings on IRC among the student leaders from all over Serbia to discuss what to do next," Miljkovic says. Are you concerned about police infiltration? I ask. "We trust that they are not police," he says. "Anyway, they have bugs in the rooms."
The offices of B92 Radio are in a tall modern building a few blocks from Republic Square. Visitors, after climbing several flights of stairs to the fifth floor, are greeted by a barricade: a 12-foot-tall, canary-yellow, chain-link fence. The gate, like so much else in Belgrade now, is a symbol, an attention getter, a declaration of independence which, when faced with actual force, will do little to repel it. On the other side of the gate, past the security desk, are the broadcast booth and newsroom of B92. Several floors below is another kind of gate, a gate that in many ways has proven far more powerful than the one upstairs. This virtual gate, made up of a server and an 80-Kbps line, links B92 to the Net and to its primary Web mirror site, hosted by XS4ALL ("Access for all"), a Dutch group that acts as one major link in the hacker-led, informal distribution network that siphons news out of Serbia.
The B92, Sezam Pro, and University of Belgrade hosts are all within walking distance of each other, and together they control the majority of the Internet connections to the outside. They are linked not only by geographic proximity - their users and system administrators often overlap. These people started out sharing software, often pirated, and cobbling together systems from smuggled parts; now they're turning these skills to building Internet hosts. This human network offers a layer of redundancy - no one person is in control, so the systems they build are harder to suppress. These systems were built from open collaboration, hacked together by students with extra time, users willing to volunteer, and entrepreneurs willing to tap the pool of talent. This human network is the real barricade that keeps the régime at bay, and it is far stronger than the yellow gate outside B92's front door.
The régime, guided by a simple arithmetic, doesn't get it. They take a look at the numbers: 8 million people in Serbia watch television, which the state controls, and 10,000 at most use the Internet. Eight million versus 10,000. Using this kind of math, the Internet appears unimportant. As a means of spreading dissent, it is not infecting many new minds or drawing new converts to the opposition.
"The government sees the Internet the same way it sees B92, as preaching to the converted. They look at who the audience is, and say, Who cares?" Milan Bozic explains, in the conference room of the Serbian Renewal Party, one of the three parties in the Together coalition. Bozic is a Sezam Pro user and a professor of mathematics at the University of Belgrade, where he was once dean of the School of Sciences, and now he's a leading political figure as a member of both the federal and state parliaments. For Bozic, the régime's faulty arithmetic is compounded by a misunderstanding of what computers can do. "They understand computers as a calculating tool," he says, "not as a communications tool." From Bozic's perspective, the government has made a tactical mistake of enormous proportions, because the Internet actually is a new kind of media, and media is the strategic weapon everyone is fighting for. "Media is the main issue of our political struggle," he says. "The people in the street know that they must get Western media attention. Without CNN, no doubt we would fail. That the media is here is one of our best successes. The Internet has helped get them here, and bring us more attention."
What Bozic understands and the government does not is that the arithmetic of popular uprisings is no longer additive. It is not about 8 million versus 10,000 - it is about who those 10,000 know, and the power that comes with this knowledge. Where the Milosevic régime still sees things in terms of linear relations, the opposition has learned a lesson from the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 to 1991: what counts is leverage, and one tremendous source of leverage is information. How was it that a system with all the benefits of additive superiority - 30,000-plus nuclear warheads, the world's largest military alliance, and 30 percent of the world's population - just fell apart? One answer is the infectious role information played in bringing down the Soviet empire. In the mid-1980s, the liberalization of control over information begun by Gorbachev acted as a kind of disease, attacking the carefully crafted internal logic of the system, slowly at first - then very quickly. It was the spread of ideas during glasnost and perestroika that tipped people from passivity to activity - and out into the streets. What is happening in Belgrade now is an extension of this information-based tipping point.
The phrase tipping point comes from the study of how disease spreads through populations. Epidemiologists have long known that a disease can hover in a population for a long time at a stable rate of infection, then suddenly leap into an epidemic, spreading exponentially. This is the point where the disease "tips" from one state to another, and if you can define what triggers this point, reducing the disease becomes much easier.
I thought about tipping-point theory as I left Serbia, passing the mothballed jet fighters that line the airport road, remembering a conversation I'd had a few weeks earlier. Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist with The New Yorker, told me how tipping-point theory had been successfully applied to social behavior, especially crime. Criminologists have speculated that crime is like a disease: a gradual escalation in petty crime can act as a tipping point, leading to an outbreak of violent crime. What they're really focusing on is the idea of crime - more specifically, fighting the spread of the idea that getting away with a small crime means you can get away with a serious crime. Or you could look at tipping points in Ţelds such as advertising or politics. What crime, ads, and revolutions have in common is that they are predicated on the spread of ideas, ideas that travel along slowly through populations and then suddenly break out - spreading exponentially. What is the tipping point where criminals think they can get away with murder? Or shoppers decide new sneakers are worth a hundred dollars? Or citizens believe that a régime can be overthrown? Each of these systems has a tipping point, and clever people - be they police, ad executives, or revolutionaries - have an instinct for finding that putative sweet spot, using whatever means at their disposal to manipulate it, gain leverage, and tip the system.
In Serbia, the Internet has appeared as a new tool for tipping authoritarian systems, and clever revolutionaries there - a bit by design, a bit by instinct - have seized upon this technology as a means of accelerating change. Their actions are supported by the feel of the tool itself: the experience of using the Internet bolsters the idea that people can be trusted to mind their own affairs and govern themselves. It is this idea - that there is something inherent about the Net that supports democracy - that the Data Conflicts conference had attempted to answer, an idea I had found specious until I visited Serbia. Now, with a real case study at hand, it appears clear that access to the Internet is incompat-ible with authoritarianism, that régimes around the world that want the beneŢts of the information age while maintaining a lock on information control are facing a paradox. Like matter and antimatter, information transparency and information opacity cannot coexist for long. They come from different universes.
The question, which remains unanswered, is what percentage of a population, once wired, marks the tipping point of no return for authoritarianism. Is it 1 percent, 2 percent, or 50 percent? Do these numbers hold true, like some constant, across cultures, or do they vary, requiring a different threshold in, say, China than in Serbia? This too will be known, sooner rather than later, as the Net becomes an essential ingredient for successful economies. But what we do know for now is that 10,000 people out of 8 million have Net access in Serbia, and that in this country this number appears to have tipped the system. There the democrats just may win.
On Christmas Eve, back from my trip, sprawled on my couch in Manhattan, I grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. Surfing through channels, I soon found myself looking at Republic Square through the jerky perspective of a handheld ABC camera on top of a building nearby. Police were chasing protesters up and down the square, hitting them with wooden clubs, pursuing them down the street and off toward Plato Square, where students gathered daily to kick off their protests. Earlier that day, the announcer said, Milosevic had brought in 20,000 people from out of town, mostly workers, many of whom were paid to board the buses. These "pro-Milosevic supporters" were then assembled at the same time and place as the 200,000 antigovernment protesters. Someone on the pro-Milosevic side shot a gun, critically wounding a protester, and the two sides started Ţghting. The police came in and separated them; that night, according to the news, the police wandered Belgrade, beating people on the streets.
For a moment, I leaned toward the screen, trying to see if anyone I knew got hurt. How was Novica Milic, or Sasha, his wife? How about the crew at Sezam Pro, like Oldtimer or Kali, the woman with the funky Elvis Costello glasses who felt so free? Were all the others alright? Then the obvious struck. I emailed Milic:
I just heard the terrible news and saw the horrible images from Belgrade, via CNN and the US networks. Are you okay, is Sasha okay? Is anyone I met last week hurt? Please let me know when you have a chance.
A few hours later, Milic wrote back:
Online answer. Yes, we are all OK. Both Sasha's mother and father were injured by the police in the demonstration - her mother is in the hospital and waits for a leg operation. Tomorrow we are going to continue. Best wishes for Xmas, Novica.
Nothing more for a day. Then a second message arrived:
This evening Kali was badly beaten by the police; she is in the hospital now. There were a lot of people beaten tonight - all AFTER the demonstrations, when they started to go back home. They were attacked either by the police or by groups of hooligans who were under clear police protection. We are at the edge of civil war in Serbia. Belgrade is a besieged city. It is unofficial martial law. Some 20,000 policemen have been brought into the town in the last 2-3 days. What will happen in the next days, no one can tell. You can help by spreading the infos of what's going on here. Yrs, Novica
I was sitting at my kitchen table when I read his email. It had been only a week since I was in Belgrade. Milic's parents-in-law were in the hospital; Kali was now there too. Some romantic notion of fair play - that police can't beat women and old people - was offended. Then I remembered that this police force was affiliated with the same militias that committed mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I reread Milic's email. "You can help by spreading the infos." Spread the infos.... So I wrote an introduction to his note and forwarded it to the 3,700 people on my mailing list:
There is little many of us can do to stop these beatings, safely ensconced in our home countries, enjoying the arrival of the new year and a peaceful holiday. But I know how incredibly important it is for the people of Serbia who oppose the régime to feel that they are not alone, that the world cares, that some people are watching and will not forget. I urge you to send letters of support to Novica.
Mailing lists picked up the announcement, and I started receiving CCs of my note, a courtesy to let me know where it went off to next. Leverage. I tried keeping tabs, but eventually it became impossible. I estimate that it went out to lists with a cumulative readership of approximately 15,000 within 36 hours of the time I posted. On New Year's Eve I received a note from Milic:
Thanks for all the help you are giving to us! I keep posting all messages I receive to the Sezam Pro forum, and tomorrow some of them will be read in front of the student gathering at Plato Square. Up to now, more than 100 messages have come to me from all parts of the world. Yrs, Novica
Milosevic appeared to have made his decision. He would use force to suppress the opposition. Police blocked people from marching beyond Republic Square, and the weather turned exceedingly cold, getting no higher than -10 degrees Celsius, with thick snow falling. Yet people kept marching, and the media images reached a new crescendo as the beatings pushed the story onto the front pages of the world for several days in a row. Milosevic kept losing major symbolic battles: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, after a fact-finding mission, concluded Milosevic must hand over control of 13 cities, including Belgrade, to the opposition; the Serbian Orthodox Church for the first time condemned Milosevic for annulling the election results; the mayor of Belgrade suddenly resigned; senior military officers wrote an open letter supporting the protests; the students created a new campaign, urging people to make so much noise during the state-controlled evening news that they would "drown it out."
The war of images, brought on by weeks of savvy media hacking was having a cumulative impact. It seemed like the forces for democracy were gaining momentum. At least it seemed that way from afar. Then on New Year's Day Milic wrote:
There were some 200,000 to 300,000 people in the center of Belgrade (some media say 500,000 - who can count; this is the biggest crowd I have ever seen in my life). Almost a hundred Sezamians were at Republic Square. This New Years Eve celebration was marvelous! This was the night when Belgrade found its soul again after all those terrible years of war and nationalist darkness. I feel again like a citizen of the world, like many, many others here, and I am proud of my town after so many years! Excuse me for being a bit pathetic, perhaps, but this feeling is common tonight and we all can start being normal again after so much time, so that it is difficult to sustain feelings... From the very place of celebration we called Kali (she is still in bed, like Sasha's mother), and she cried over the line, from happiness this time... Whatever happens tomorrow, this night of complete freedom from fear, of happiness that the future could bring us freedom, will always be our sign that we - the democrats in Serbia - will win! Yrs, Novica
David S. Bennahum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Coming of Age in Cyberspace, which will be published by Basic Books in the fall.
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