Technology & Revolution

I admire Thomas Friedman’s intellect. In today’s NYT, he wrote a particularly insightful analysis about the events in Egypt and the Middle East, called China, Twitter and 20-Year-Olds vs. the Pyramids (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/opinion/06friedman.html). Like in many of the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe, there is clearly a link between modern communication technologies that were spawned by the Internet and the ability of people to quickly gather around key societal issues. This was one of the original promises of the Internet. Like with many technologies, we often overestimate their progress and impact in the next two years, but underestimate their impact in ten years.

Social networks are one of the first communication media that allow like-minded people to communicate without knowing each other. In the past, you had to at least know someone’s address (physical or virtual) to send them a message. This is no longer true and the vast societal impacts of this will reverberate for decades. I saw this first hand when I was in charge of AT&T’s communication businesses in Eastern Europe in the late 1980’s (even having the good fortune to be in Berlin on the day the Wall was opened.) Even then people realized that communication was a necessary ingredient for change.

But Tom takes this a step further. He points out that “the whole Asian-led developing world’s rising consumption of meat, corn, sugar, wheat and oil certainly is” fueling the revolts in the Middle East. What a fabulous insight about the interconnected global economy! Couple that with an increasingly educated and aware population of 20-year-olds who can now easily communicate their frustrations and gather on social networks – that’s fuel for change. Especially in societies where there are a great many of what Tom calls “the educated unemployables” that have college degrees on paper but really don’t have the skills to make them globally competitive.

It is axiomatic that most new technologies are generational. It is not surprising that the aging autocratic leaders of the Middle East (and elsewhere) at best have a limited understanding and therefore underestimate the impact of Twitter, etc. While those of us in the technology field know that none of these are revolutionary technologies per se, the societal impacts wrought by the wide-spread adoption of them are!

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