Technology shrinks world, especially in ravaged nations

BY SIMEON TALLEY | JULY 16, 2009 7:15 AM

Can Facebook change the world? Facebook now has 250 million users all across the world. It’s popular mostly in the United States and Western European countries but also with millions of users in South America, Africa, and in Asian countries. Each of Facebook’s 250 million users can communicate with one another.

But Facebook is just one of the social-networking sites or social-media tools that is drastically changing the way we communicate with each other and with whom we can interact. Facebook is only one example of how technology and the proliferation of information via the Internet to more and more different kinds of people can make our world a better place.

If young Iranians hadn’t been able to Tweet, text, post messages on Facebook or videos on YouTube, then it probably wouldn’t have been the story that it turned out to be. The ability of Iranians to communicate with each other and to the world through these platforms has left Iranians with the same political leaders in control — but those leaders have been seriously undermined and weakened. And the stories were told by everyday Iranians — the average ordinary person was able to tell a story to the world that was captivating and galvanizing.

In China, stories of protests and abuses haven’t been able to get out in the same way. While more and more Chinese citizens are using the Internet, the Chinese government has, at times, completely shut down social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and has restricted Internet access in the country. The conflict between the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group, and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang province is a recent example. The recent 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre is another. Each year, thousands of protests in rural areas take place where farmers and laborers are organizing for better wages and conditions. However, most outside of China never hear of the almost daily protests taking place.

Let me be clear: China’s rise and influence in the world grows by the day, and China is a much more open society than it was 20 to 30 years ago. It’s quite possible that in our lifetimes, we will see a day when Chinese powers effectively rivals or possibly eclipses American power. Yet, my point is that the Chinese government recognizes the threat that these tools pose to the status quo. If the workers on strike for better wages and conditions, if the Uighurs in Xinjiang, or if those Chinese inside of China were able to organize over Facebook and Tweet on Twitter about Tiananmen, I believe China would probably look different today. And the Chinese government knows this.

We have seen the possibilities of what can happen when we are connected to each other, regardless of time or distance. We have hope that with greater connectivity, gradually a society can become more free and open. Yet if this ability to connect to each other through social-networking sites and access to information remains limited to the world’s wealthiest or moderately wealthy countries, then the power of these new technological and media platforms won’t be discovered. In Africa, Google is now working to create a whole new line of cell phones on which the individual can essentially search the Internet through SMS texting. Very soon, many more Africans will be able to have access to the Internet and information through their cell phones. Why is this so important? Because for most people living in Africa, the only access they have to the Internet is a cell phone. Google is enabling people in the poorest countries to have access to the same information and to the same data that we have in the wealthiest countries.

Technology is but a platform; it is but a medium for social change to take place. As more and more people are connected and have access to greater amounts of information in the 21st century, we will see our world change more and more for the better.

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