May 26, 2012

How the Internet Can Save the World

Turkey's President Abdullah Gül and his wife were making the rounds of Silicon Valley over recent days, visiting Stanford, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and more.

A photo from the Google visit especially caught my attention. It showed the President and Mrs. Gül with Google's Sergey Brin, in one of the Google autonomous vehicles. It seems readily apparent that the President was enjoying the experience.

I've been uncharacteristically at something of a loss for words as to how to describe my sense of that photo, and the way that President Gül documented his Northern California visit as would many other modern tourists today -- via Twitter.

A fascination with hi-tech, not just self-driving cars and Internet microblogging but across a very wide spectrum, tends to be worldwide, and (with some notable exceptions) to cut across political, economic, and even many religious barriers.

And therein resides a possible key to saving the world, if we can prevent our own governments from getting in the way.

I can distinctly remember decades ago, the first time I communicated with someone in another country over the Internet from UCLA -- actually back then on the ancestor Defense Department ARPANET -- via a noisy mechanical ASR-33 Teletype. In the process of trying to debug a network-related problem over a TALK link (what we'd call a "chat" today) I found myself typing back and forth with a member of the Norwegian Air Force. I entered my messages slowly (these devices were limited to about 10 characters a second) on thick plastic keys spinning innumerable gears inside the machine, and his replies printed in a ragged line of all uppercase letters on the unwinding yellow paper.

We talked about the network problems. We talked about the rooms we were in. And the weather. And our pets.

And after we closed down the link, I stared at the paper for a bit, the loud motor in the teletype still spinning away, and considered what might happen to the world if such communications were commonplace rather than exceptional, if we could communicate with people around the planet without having to worry about relatively enormous per-minute telephone charges and limited circuit capacities.

At the time, the broad availability of such networking technologies appeared quite distant. But it was a thought I've long remembered.

Now of course, the modern Internet has banished the concept of distance in terms of communications. On Google+, or Facebook, or wherever, you may find yourself chatting (increasingly not only by text, but with audio and video as well) with persons that in any other context or earlier time you'd probably never have known or talked with in any way.

This is the golden age of global communications, a time when ordinary people almost anywhere in the world have or will likely soon gain the capability of dealing directly with counterparts in other countries, other cultures, with an array of different lifestyles and circumstances.

The question is, how long will this freedom be permitted to exist?

When people have the easy and inexpensive means to communicate directly, especially in informal settings and about the everyday aspects of life, they usually discover that they have much more in common than they perhaps expected. This seems true whether we're using written communications, or audio and video links like Skype or Google+ Hangouts -- working our way ever closer toward a full "virtual presence" that makes our common humanity impossible to ignore.

And frankly, I believe that such capabilities genuinely worry some governments around the world, for whom maintaining a certain level of "us vs. them" sensibilities is considered crucial to their control regimes.

I wouldn't assert that all governmental attempts to censor and otherwise control the Internet are necessarily aimed at oppression or making wars somehow more palatable -- or don't in some cases have at least understandable rationales.

But ultimately, regardless of whether Internet restrictions are described in terms of security concerns, religious matters, moral convictions, or any of many other categories, the simple fact is that overall, maximal communications between people around the world, while not necessarily always favorable for any particular governments, is very much in the best interests of the global community at large.

I spend much of my time considering the ways in which the wonders of the Internet could be wrecked, or blocked, or subverted. But it's also important that we consider the vast potential the Net holds for improving the world in the most relevant and important of ways.

Not just in terms of science and research, though those are great. Not just in regard to commerce and the global economy, though these are crucial.

But also in terms of the basic fact of fundamental human communications, of being able to as freely and openly as possible discuss with other mere mortals around the planet the nature of our lives, hopes and dreams, our loves, and yes, our fears as well.

Personal communications capabilities of these sorts, enabled by technology in general and the Internet in particular, have more potential to save the world in the long run than do all the governments on the globe.


Posted by Lauren at May 26, 2012 07:05 PM | Permalink
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