Saturday, 19 February 2011

Digital Technology: Diffusion and Revolution

continued from previous posting

Technology: Diffusion and Revolution

In 1996, 80 percent of the population in 50 Muslim countries did not have regular access to a telephone. By 2006, this proportion had dropped to 20 percent. The diffusion rates for other information and communication technologies are also high, generally higher than those in non-Muslim developing countries: between 2000 and 2010, the compound annual growth rate of internet users was 32 percent, compared with 24 percent for the rest of the developing world. See here.

Consider “doubling time,” a figure used by demographers to refer to the amount of time it takes for a country’s population to double. Applied to technology diffusion, this reveals rapid trends: on average, since 2000, the number of internet users in Muslim countries has doubled every 8 months.

Understanding technology diffusion in Muslim countries offers some insight into why current political leaderships are being challenged. Mounir Khelifa, a Tunisian literature professor, speaking to Reuters, explains that the uprisings were made possible by the emergence of a generation raised during this information technology age. Both the Internet and Satellite Television undercut the propaganda of state media, creating  the opportunity for people to develop their own consensus on their rights. 

The recent uprisings in the Arab world began with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a protesting Tunisian shopkeeper who self-immolated, which activated a cross boundary network of people exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia had deposed their dictator after a series of strikes, protests and a mass civil disobedience movement called the Jasmine Revolution. Satellite television and the social media allowed the trend to spread across the Middle East.  Even President Obama has identified technology as one of the key variables that enabled average Egyptians to protest. True, digital media alone didn’t oust Mubarak, but it did provide the medium by which calls for freedom have cascaded across the region.

Technology: Politics of Change

And what of the sands? Where will they settle? It is difficult to know but what is already being called the Arab Spring, it is likely to lead to more political casualties. I remain cautious about what happens next - the western media is rather formulaic in its response and seems to feel that tomorrow the Arabs of the middle east will wake up as free citizens in fully established democracies or that militant theocracies will manoeuvre quick take-overs and send forth an army of radicals.

Nothing is quite certain and in no way am I ambivalent towards what is happening. I live here; I see it through a different lens and in particular, I think solutions need to be local.

There is much to be learned from this. Right now, I feel like I know two things. Firstly, in the modern world that we live in, we should not underestimate the will of people and the power that they have in tapping into the technologies available to them. Secondly, long term, brutal regimes and autocracies cannot survive; change will occur. The sands will continue to shift.

For further reading on Information Technology and Political Islam follow this link.

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