An open information society is inevitable. I was a little surprised last week to receive a forwarded e-mail from Junis, who lives in a small town 35 miles southwest of Kabul. This weekend, a movie theater and video store opened up again in Kabul (renting Independence Day), Afghan TV cranked up, and so did the Net. Americans understand all too well that our techno-driven culture produces wonders and dangers, but it's one of the most popular social and political forces in the world. Passion for pop culture relentlessly undermined repressive governments like Poland, East Germany and the former Soviet Union. The world, it turns out, really is porous now. Technology and information will squeeze through every closed nook and crevice. The Taliban never made a dent in the attachment this Afghan programmer and his friends had for it.
When his message came, the Taliban had just fled, Northern Alliance soldiers had taken over his village, and everybody rushed to barbers to cut off their beards and to nearby holes and hiding spots to dig up their Walkmen, VCRs, TVs, CD players, and -- in Junis's case -- his ancient Commodore, one of four in the village. Cafes had popped up all over, with impromptu dances and parties everywhere.
Junis's e-mail -- routed to Kabul, then Islamabad, then London -- was a reminder that there are civil liberties, and then there are civil liberties. Computers had been banned under penalty of death by the Taliban (except for the Taliban themselves), along with music and TV. Junis, a computer geek obsessed with Linux, had first e-mailed me years ago while I was writing for Hotwired. He was genial and obsessed with American culture. He loved martial arts movies, anything to do with Star Wars, and rap. He was perhaps the Taliban's prime kind of target. (Now he's furiously trying to download movies he's missed and is mesmerized by open source and Slashdot.)
"I could still see the dust of the pick-up trucks carrying the Taliban out of my village," he wrote, "and some friends and I went and dug up the boards of a chicken coop where I had hid the computer. They might have beaten or killed us if they'd found it. It was forbidden, although they used computers all of the time." He claims American commandos are skulking around dressed as Northern Alliance tribesmen.
Junis describes life under the Taliban as brutal, terrifying and profoundly boring. What the people in his town -- especially the kids -- missed most was music, posters of Indian and American movie stars (he'd kept his own decaying poster of Madonna), and American TV. Junis missed the fast-changing Web and sees, he says, that he has fallen "forever behind," and that programming is more complex than ever. But at least "Baywatch," which everyone in his town acutely missed, is back, and there's already a lot of talk about "Survivor." Junis predicts "Temptation Island" will be the number one show in Afghanistan within a month.
If the world needed another demonstration of America's most powerful weapon -- not bombs or special forces but pop culture -- it got it again this week. People all over the planet fuss about whether this healthy and democratic or corrupting and dehumanizing, but people's love for American techno-toys, TV shows, music and movies is breathaking. Watching TV pictures of tribesman on horseback, it's easy to forget that technology reached deep into this culture as well. Junis says phone service around Kabul remains spotty, but reporters, U.N. workers and foreign soldiers are wiring up. He's already made his way to some sex sites, and wishes he had a printer.
There are many computers in Afghanistan, Junis said, many in clusters in cities like Kabul and Kandahar (news reports have frequently mentioned that Bin-Laden's organization used both e-mail and encrypted files to communicate). Computer geeks are already hooking up with one another all over the country; Junis isn't the only Afghan e-mailing these days. He says other coders and gamers hid their PC's as well. Meanwhile, he's especially eager to get his hands on the Apple iPod, and has been drooling over the Apple website site since he got back online. And some things, of course, never change. "I thought they were going to get Microsoft," he wrote. "I guess not."
A decade ago, when East Berlin teenagers stormed the Wall and crossed over into West Berlin, the first thing many of them did was rush to music stores to buy tapes and CD's they'd been secretly, illegally listening to for years.
The Taliban worked to create the antithesis of the American world, one without technology, computing, the Net, music, or any vestige of popular culture (not to mention women's rights, elections, a free press or any religion except fundamentalist Islam. Junis said people in his town risked their lives repeatedly, not to fight the Taliban, but to try and listen to CD's and watch videos smuggled in from Pakistan, watched in the dark under blankets and in cellars. It seems the outcome was inevitable.