By now, afficianados of digital politics have seen Phil De Vellis’s remix of Apple’s “1984″ ad, where an iPod-wearing athlete throws a hammer through a giant video screen of a droning Hillary Clinton. An Obama supporter, De Vellis made the video independently of his employer, Blue State Digital, which consults to several political campaigns, including the Obama campaign. He’s resigned from Blue State Digital so that the controversy over the ad doesn’t spread to the company. In a post on Huffington Post, he offers his reasons for making the mashup:
The specific point of the ad was that Obama represents a new kind of politics, and that Senator Clinton’s “conversation” is disingenuous. And the underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power.
The ad has inspired political commentators to announce a new era of politics. My friend Bruno Giussani declared, “2008 will be the campaign of user-generated swiftboating. It will be a campaign dominated by information chaos.” In a (moving) speech in Doha a week ago, Larry Lessig argued that the remixed ad marks a breaking point in political discourse, where open culture and open politics could merge and bring to an end the 20th century trends of increased centralization and control in media and politics.
My friend Sami ben Gharbia, a Tunisian free speech activist and coordinator of Global Voices’ advocacy efforts, attended the Doha conference with me and sent me a link after hearing Lessig’s speech. It was to a remix of the 1984 ad made to address Tunisian politics. In this video, the hammer shatters a screen where Tunisian president Ben Ali is speaking. The final image isn’t text declaring that 1984 or 2008 will differ from “1984″, but the image of a Tunisian girl opening her eyes, as if Ben Ali’s twenty year rule was a bad dream she was waking from.
I assumed that the Tunisian remix was a response to the Obama remix. I thought it was especially poingant because, no matter how you feel about DOS-based PCs or Hillary Clinton, neither is as Orwellian as Tunisia, where government censorship of media is widespread, political rights are curtailed and dozens of dissidents find themselves imprisoned or exiled. I’d planned on using the mashup to open a talk in New York next week, talking about how techniques of the read/write web can spread between activist communities around the world. And then I looked at the date on the file.
The Ben Ali remix was posted to Daily Motion five months ago. The text associated with the video identifies it as being authored on February 29, 2004 by “Astrubal“, as a gift on the 19th anniversary of the “November 7th” change in which Ben Ali declared President Habib Bourguiba medically unfit for duty and assumed the presidency of Tunisia. Whether five months or three years old, it substantially precedes the much-celebrated De Vellis remix.
Both the De Vellis and Astrubal remixes use the same source material – an updated version of the ad where the hammer thrower is wearing an iPod and earbuds. This is apparently the commercial remixed by Apple to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Macintosh, shown at the 2004 MacWorld Expo. (The release of this video at MacWorld is consistent with the February 2004 date attributed to the Astrubal video – MacWorld is usually at the end of January, which means a source file for the video might have been available to Astrubal for at least a month.)
I’m not accusing De Vellis of ripping off Astrubal’s work. It’s quite likely that he’s never seen the Tunisian remix and that he had the idea of remixing the ad independently. Nor am I criticizing the press for failing to credit the Tunisians for remixing the video before the pro-Obama camp did – I wouldn’t have seen this remix had I not been hanging out with Tunisian human rights activists. But it’s an interesting reminder that US activists aren’t the only ones using the tools of the read/write web, and that they’re not always the first to use these tools.
Press coverage of the De Vellis remix suggests that his video has been seen at least three million times – the Astrubal remix has probably had a small fraction of as many views. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Tunisians to see the video, as at least one Tunisian ISP is blocking access to DailyMotion.com, a site which hosts the Astrubal remix and many other anti-Ben Ali videos, including this one from the Yezzi.org free speech campaign. Yezzi activists are now organizing an online campaign to call attention to the Daily Motion block. Censorship, as always, is the sincerest form of flattery. (My friend Nart Villeneuve believes the Tunisian block of DailyMotion wasn’t political, but was a consequence of their use of SmartFilter, which characterized the site as pornographic.)
It’s great that people around the world are seeing the potential for citizen media to reinvigorate politics. Let’s hope that the Tunisians – working in a far more oppressive environment than the Democrats – get some credit and attention for showing us the potential of these tools.
In a comment, Sami ben Gharbia makes it clear that the Astrubal video dates from over three years ago and was a campaign video (of sorts) for the 2004 Tunisian presidential elections:
“What both remixes have in common is that they are used during elections campaign.
The Tunisians remix was part of a large campaign for the boycott of the 2004 presidential elections in Tunisia.
This is the link to the original post (February 29, 2004)of Astrubal on TuneZine- the site which was founded by the Tunisian cyberdissident Zouhair Yahyaoui who died in March 2005 at the age of 36, 18 months after his release from prison. “