What’s the problem with coffeehouses and the Internet?

What’s the problem with coffeehouses and the Internet?

What do coffeehouses and the Internet have in common? Both, believe it or not, are mediums of information exchange. What’s the problem with them? Wherever there is a free flow of information, there is an autocrat trying to suppress “rumors” from spreading. Why do rumors spread? Because there is no free flow of information. If you suppress the main channels of communication, people will create their own little black market for it. Under the Ottoman Empire, it was the coffeehouses of Istanbul where you heard the rumors, and furious autocratic Emperors would lash out against them whenever the mill didn’t strike their fancy. The new Internet legislation the Erdoğan government is sponsoring is no different. When it comes to control over free information exchange, nothing much seems to have changed in Turkey for the past five centuries. That is a pity.

In 1631, Sultan Murad IV banned all coffeehouses and cigarette smoking in Istanbul. The city had had coffeehouses since 1550 (Vienna had its first in 1643). 1631 was the year of the big fire in Istanbul.

Murad was the 17th sultan of the Ottoman Empire and 96th Caliph of the Islamic World. He saw the fire as an opportunity to ban coffeehouses, which he saw as the basis of subversive activities. Subversive activity to an autocratic ruler is almost always about spreading rumors about the guy himself (and they are mostly guys). And those don’t even need to be false, really; just information spreading - the function of journalism today. Information exchange without centralized control will always be seen as a malicious rumor mill. That is why the Turkish government is trying to devise direct administrative control over the Internet. Looking for a reason? Take it out of Murad IV’s playbook: whenever three people come together, they are assumed to be hatching a plot to overthrow the government. After all, you can never be too careful these days. With all the “interest rate lobbies” and telekinetic operations against this anti-imperialistic government of ours. God forbid.

I was looking at the numbers on Internet literacy the other day. My first reaction was obvious: half of Turkey is not integrated into the global economy. That is, the eastern, female and non-urbanized half of the country. Those people simply do not have access to the Internet. But what about the online part? Are those people really integrated into the globe? Questionable, if you ask me. According to the numbers of the Turkish Statistical Institution (TÜİK), 42 percent of e-mails in Turkey do not contain any attachments whatsoever. That figure is around 20 percent for the European Union countries.

Attachments mean doing business or having a knowledge-based activity, I presume. No attachments then means a more basic form of information sharing, kind of like the initial stage of information processing. That is why there are so many users of Facebook and Twitter in Turkey, if I may add.

Turkey is the 17th largest economy in the World. When it comes to checking government powers, Turkey is 67th among 97 countries of the World. We are far better than China, which is 86th, in limiting the powers of its executive branch. But when it comes to the number of Facebook users, Turkey is the 6th largest country in the World, and 11th largest on Twitter. I see this as a continuation of our five century old coffeehouse tradition. Both are male, western and urban, if I may add.

Why do Turks look to the Internet for information? Why not just go around the corner, have a coffee and read the papers? The country is the number one incarcerator of journalists, for God’s sake. Unfortunately, we far outdo the Chinese in that category.