by Mortimer B. Zuckerman

The cellphone is a thousand times more powerful in both its technology and its potential for disruptive change.

The cellphone is only a few ounces in weight and a few inches in dimensions. It is about a thousandth the size of, and a millionth the price of, the most powerful computer at MIT 40 years ago. Yet that small phone is a thousand times more powerful in both its technology and its potential for change. Even the computer geniuses are stunned by what they've achieved. Tom Rolander was the partner with the late Gary Kildall in creating the code for an operating system for the personal computer. He marveled the other day that in his 30-year career, the processing power of supercomputers has increased over 1 billion times -- by over nine orders of magnitude!

So much for the speed with which millions of bytes of data can be transmitted and received. Consumers have recognized the social and commercial utility with almost comparable speed. The networked population has grown over the last two decades from the low millions to the billions. There are over 5 billion cellphone users and over 2 billion Internet users. They have historic access to information and to one another. They have seized the technology's facility to provide a common platform for virtual communities, whether through Facebook, Twitter, Google, or news websites, where they can share their views and experiences with untold numbers of others.

We have seen, too, how the technology makes it possible to summon millions to a common cause virtually overnight. The technology revolution has become the handmaiden of political revolution on a scale nobody envisaged. Every agitated citizen is now a potential revolutionary. Unwise governments will resist liberalization in the name of "order." Governments used to ruling by fiat have been especially slow to recognize what it means when the advancing technology empowers their people, but dramatic change in connectivity cannot fail to have stunning political and social impact.

The history of political change and progress is a history of communication. Paul Revere's midnight ride to Lexington to warn that the British were on their way to seize an arms cache in Concord is known to every schoolboy (or used to be!). The American revolutionaries developed their shared beliefs using the postal service designed by Benjamin Franklin. The printing press helped democratize Europe before those nations edged toward democratic forms of government. Same, too, with Martin Luther protesting the Catholic Church.

In modern times, the 1979 Iranian revolution against the shah was sparked by messages on cassette tapes recorded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the 1980s we had the growth of the samizdat movement in the Soviet Union (samizdat meaning self-published), in which activists found creative ways around censorship to publish protests against human rights abuses. Those brave souls had no Web. They had carbon paper, photocopiers, and fax machines. Those less smothered had radio and television to bring about political action. "Tear down this wall," said President Reagan, and words that might have been heard by a few hundred in Abraham Lincoln's time reverberated around the world.

Technology has transformed media from the one-to-the-many nature of TV into the many-to-the-many-more geometry of social media. Cellular networks have become what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as "the public space of the 21st century."

In 2001 in the Philippines, the political compromising of the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada provoked text messaging that brought out over a million people in Manila. They coalesced into a political force strong enough to force Estrada out. In the past months, in Tunisia, and then Egypt, millions were galvanized by brutal deaths that added powerful emotions to years of grievances. Who could have imagined how convulsive it would be when dissent found an angry voice in text messages, the Arab TV network Al Jazeera, international cable television, websites (including the inspired role of the local Google manager), and social media.

Yes, fundamental issues were at stake in oppressive rule, rampant corruption, huge unemployment, and poverty. But they had been for decades. The spark that finally set off the populist fire was provoked by new media and a social process that coalesced under the radar of military and intelligence services.

Digital democrats are not guaranteed overnight success. In 2009 in Iran, during the "green uprising," every technology was deployed -- social media, text messaging, E-mails, photo-sharing, YouTube videos, Twitter updates, and Facebook groups -- to challenge the flawed presidential election. But the authoritarians maintained control by brutality and by using the new technology to identify and arrest dissidents. In Belarus and Thailand, too, protests arose, only to fail.

Then there is China. During the period of demonstrations around Tiananmen Square, the government suppressed dissent by force. By contrast, in the aftermath of the devastating May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, a major public protest broke out in the networked media. The protesters decried corruption, which was made broadly visible, forcing the government to enact reforms. A state long accustomed to having a monopoly on public speech found itself called to account for the difference between its stated view of the events and the public witness.

Since then, Chinese government authorities have tried to control access to technology -- even as they expand its role in extending their political and economic power in sustaining the one-party state. They are more determined than ever to police telephone calls, electronic messages, E-mail, and access to the Internet, both from within the country and from outside, in order to extinguish any hint of anti-government sentiment. They recently disrupted Gmail service into the country and tried to make it appear as if technical problems at Google were to blame. The few popular virtual private messaging services developed to evade the government have been crippled. Government computers are shutting out more and more information and scores of individual bloggers have been detained.

Much of the outcome has been depressing, but not totally so. The clampdown has not been absolute and technology is ventilating the repressed dissatisfaction and anger experienced by millions of people. The Chinese people want the government to embrace a civic society and the private sector. They know that the access of citizens to information technology cannot be denied forever. Sooner or later it will compel governments to build new alliances that reflect citizen power.

An opposition that once lacked organizational and communication tools will now be able to exploit connection technology that will be both cheap and widely used. They understand social media is not a replacement for real-world action, but the messages to them raise morale: You are not alone!

American policy must surely be to nourish the new technologies. Fortunately, many of the platforms supporting the networked public sphere are privately held and run, and most of them are based in the United States. We must defend universal access to the Internet and the freedom of the operators from interference by either commercial or governmental interests.

An unfettered Internet now affords another glittering prospect. We can now collect and retrieve once unimaginable amounts of information, analyze and correlate what we find, and disseminate the hypotheses and conclusions in the professions, in agriculture, and in industry worldwide.

We can also exploit these technologies to detect surprises before they become surprises. Collecting and mining vast quantities of data can tell us the statistical chances of flood and famine and financial disaster, of the real trends in climate change and disease, and of undetected patterns in responses to new medical treatments. The success of IBM's Watson in beating human Jeopardy champs is a portent. The U.S. military is now developing an Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS) intended to provide advance notice of an impending crisis so officials can devise effective mitigation plans, mobilize resources, and coordinate responses with foreign allies, all on a real-time or a near real-time basis.

Before the cyber revolution, it was just impractical to collect the millions of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and see what kind of picture was emerging. One approach to tapping into the mood of a country is tracking what its citizens are searching for online -- for example,through Google searches. Now we can hope to detect the likely consequence of thousands of global decisions, identifying where disaster can be forestalled by early coordinated action. This involves monitoring the seeds of national, sub-national, and international crises in aggressive actions, individual killings, and poisonous propaganda. If we could calculate the likely incidence of genocide, we could plan a coordinated counter-action before thousands of lives have been lost, as they were in recent episodes of tribal and sectarian killings.

Behold the mighty electron streaking to mankind's benefit at the speed of light!

 

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Technology & Change: "Technology Powers Revolutions and Saves Lives"

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