When the Berlin Wall fell, the western response was swift and obvious: send in the free-market economists. Soviet Communism was a system structured for failure that had left a group of governments and citizens in need of political and cultural tools, as well as knowledge of markets and the institutions they require to function.
Professor Jeff Sachs, the economist, was dispatched to Poland and across the former Soviet Union (FSU). Funding streams were brought online and bright students from the eastern bloc attended Harvard Business School and learned about how markets work. There were also parallel democracy building programs established. Partnerships and exchanges proliferated and the Soviet-era systems were transformed to engage and contribute to the global market economy.
As the Mubarak regime steps out of the way, Gaddafi’s collapses, and as Tunisia continues to re-establish its democratic roots, similar questions are raised with less obvious answers: what can be done to alleviate the extreme unemployment and income gaps that plague these countries? Certainly, the removal of the authoritarian regimes that oversaw these systems is a tremendous first step, but what what else must happen to ensure that the conditions that spurred these uprisings improve?
The answer is, in part, right in front of us if we look closely at the banners that were waved by brave protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square featuring three well-known organisations: Facebook, Twitter and al-Jazeera. This new, more democratic configuration of media gave voice to new players.
While the revolutions taking place are fuelled by the blood, sweat and tears of the brave protesters that fought for change, one central component that underlay and helped spark, mobilise and globalise these events is the rise of the information society. Satellite communication technologies, mobile smart phones and landline telephones turned into wifi networks were the nervous system that facilitated, maintained and publicised the protest movements. Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian born Google Marketing executive who tirelessly worked with new communication technologies and used his marketing smarts to help orchestrate the end of Mubarak’s reign, is a new kind of information age hero.
Of course, the corollary to the rise of the information society is the rise of the knowledge economy. The future of global growth will be found in the knowledge based corporations, and these industries are just now starting to emerge in the Middle East. Central to their success are ambitious, well-educated and innovative young minds thinking about how to use, adapt and innovate modern technologies to improve their societies.
So what should the US do?
Substantial improvement in telecommunication infrastructure, investment, laws and literacy is needed. Mobile phones may be prevalent, but internet penetration in Egypt is approximately 21%, and 34% in Tunisia, which are good figures for the region, but not compared to the rest of the world. More importantly, these internet connections are mostly at dial-up speeds, with content and service providers regulated by autocratic regulations focused on slowing and controlling rather than energising the flow of information.
Just as Americans have recognised the need for faster and more flexible access to global information networks in order for the US to compete in the 21st-century global economy, Egyptians and Tunisians are grasping this, too. Transforming infrastructure established to allow for the unidirectional distribution of information from the state to its people into networks of collaboration and innovation requires radical reworking of the legal, technical and economic structures governing communications and telecommunications systems.
The American private sector is poised to help. Silicon Valley is unmatched in the talent and capital required to radically transform the communications infrastructure which the Middle East so badly needs. Let’s facilitate the exchanges between Cairo and Cupertino, Alexandria and Mountain View, as soon as possible.
And let’s share ideas that better sustain local communications networks and eliminate the possibility that a future Mubarak will even be able to technically switch off the internet. We know that Egypt can’t immediately transform into a democratic union, but without a democratic information infrastructure, there is little likelihood that the gains made by protesters will be sustained. Equitably shared and unlicensed use of airwaves and community-controlled communications infrastructure are a good place to start.
But this story isn’t only about new technologies. Although new technologies have often allowed room for new voices, the fax machine didn’t cause the Berlin Wall to crumble, neither did the smart phone bring down Mubarak. The skills required to develop and deploy solutions to locally generated demands are likely to come not from business schools, but from information-schools and computer science programmes. The newly democratic societies of tomorrow won’t need people steeped narrowly in the monetarist economics of Friedman and Schwartz, but in ideas fused from computer science, sociology, communication and human-computer interaction studies.
If the United States is going to continue to be the beacon of democracy, it must realise that the beacon beats with a digital heart these days – and it must engage accordingly. But we’ll need to be humble and not repeat the errors of eastern Europe, thinking we have all the right answers. The prescriptions of the economists were far from perfect, and partnerships, not diktats are what is needed now. It’s about government understanding the new levels of citizen participation and becoming more accessible. In fact, learning could work in both directions – for the US, too, has much to learn about governing in the age of information.
By Tom Glaisyer, a Knight media policy fellow at the New America Foundation and a doctoral student in communications at Columbia University. In 2009 he was a New Ideas Fund fellow and Shawn Powers, an assistant professor in communication at Georgia State University, and an associate director at the Centre on International Media Education.