I often find myself wandering into this topic deep into discussions about major global issues. It seems to me that if we can avoid fatal global catastrophies for just a bit longer the Internet itself will be the vehicle for solving the root causes. The reason the Internet solves all the world's problems lies in the answer to this question:
"What happens when every living human has access to all information and is free to decide what to do with it?"
The Case of the Syrian Shopkeeper
Bill McGee and I have been discussing this trend and comparing notes and examples of progress we find laying about for more than ten years. One such shared tidbit about two years ago comes to mind frequently in this context. I was reading a newpaper in Amsterdam and came across a short article about Internet access creating pressure for change in Syria. A 24-year-old Syrian shopkeeper was quoted as saying, "They can't hide anything from us anymore. The world is one big ball. We want the same things everyone else does."
I immediately called up Bill and rehashed the implications of 24-year-old Syrian shopkeepers being *capable* of making such statements. These are the kinds of things I watch for and had expected to see all along, but like so many other examples I've seen this brief quote struck me to the core. Here was an individual who only a few dozen months earlier would never have had the ability to acquire information through anything other than the few controlled media within his physical reach.
In 1990 I got in a heated debate with someone in Usenet political newsgroups (well, actually that happened quite a lot, but this pertains to one specific instnace), and we took our argument off the main list and emailed back and forth. We digressed to topics we agreed on - specifically the impact of the Internet on geopolitics - and he told me this story.
His son was a 22-year-old Canadian exchange student in China in 1989. He happened to be in Beijing when the uprising broke out. Since he had been travelling in places where phone connections could be as simple as a set of wires he had a modem in his laptop with alligator clips. He found himself in a room facing Tianammen Square and a pair of live telephone wires. He dialed his laptop into the university in Hong Kong and from there sent his father detailed descriptions of what was going on as the tanks rolled. Today with digitial cameras he would be sending pictures and video as well.
Just how *does* a dictatorial government maintain the control of information that creates their power base, once the Internet exists?
The Phillipino Cabbie
I arrived in Toronto once last year and had to take an airport limo for an hour long ride. Being in a boisterous mood, I immediately engaged in a conversation with the driver and threw down my most contenscious gauntlet - "freedom of information and ubiquitous access (specifically, the Internet) solves all the world's problems". Much to my surprise he agreed emphatically. This is the story he told me.
In ~1970 he had been living in Manila under the Marcos regime. I put him around fifty now, so at that time he would have been in his mid twenties, full of fire and daring. So much so, that he and five friends said some things publically against the corruption and injustice of the Marcos gang. Two nights later while the six of them were together in the evening some gentlemen in dark clothing stopped by to hold all his friends down and blow their brains out while he watched. They then put him in a basement cell for five months, and then brought him out into a field at night and made this offer:
"You can go free, everything's cool, we would just ask that you make a big point out of telling everyone how much you realy *love* Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, their assorted thugs, cronies and murderous freaks." If that was a problem for him, his hosts would be happy to shoot him right then and there. Well, his answer wasn't appropriate so they shot him and left him for dead.
[Normally this isn't screwed up - I mean, if you are going to do something as serious as actually killing someone at your feet you think you'd pay attention and finish the job - but I suppose when you do anything over and over again you will botch the task sooner or later. Anyway, other than a scar in his chest he's none the worse for wear now.]
For all of the Real Life Action/Adventure that led up to this man landing on an airplane in Toronto, it is an experience on the airplane that caused the most emotion in his account. He said that there was a Saturday Toronto Star on the plane (the Very Thick edition), and when he looked up from reading it the plane was empty. He hadn't noticed the plane land, or anyone else get off --- because he had never seen anything resembling the truth in print in his life.
"The only truth in the newspapers under Marcos were the weather and the sports scores.", he said.
Ivory Coast, Africa
There is a village on the coast in The Ivory Coast that has been a subsistence fishing village. The loss of children to malnutrition was high, as was the loss of husbands and fathers to storms at sea.
Some group (not sure who, this was from a CNN Talkback Live episode, circa 2000, with John Morgridge) for their own reaons chose to put two cheap computers and a modem in the one-room schoolhouse in the village, to assist with education.
No one knew that the men in the community would discover that they could study ocean currents and satellite weather maps to fish more efficiently and more safely. Every day before dawn the fishermen gather in the schoolhouse and check data. Orphanhood is down and children do not die of starvation.
In Afghanistan at this moment there is a small child who will change the world for the better, as long as the information is there for that child to use. I, for one, intend to do what I can to make sure that the access is there when that child wants to use it.