Thanks to the blessings of Internet, distances of thousands of miles have simply vanished. Time and space do not seem to matter anymore. I carry my office around in my BlackBerry, communicating all the time with colleagues, contributors and friends, sometimes even writing and editing articles using its tiny keyboard. It’s truly mindboggling how technology has changed our lives. The World Wide Web has transformed the very human existence. I can’t imagine how we lived and worked before the dawn of the Net, and am just not talking about my tribe.
I am no geek and my tech skills are at best rudimentary. But given the Net’s transformative nature and new vistas of possibilities and opportunities it forever seems to unravel, I believe this is perhaps the most significant and groundbreaking invention since Man hit on the big idea of wheel. Or probably that distinction should go to computer, which gave birth to the Web, a network connecting computers across the globe. However you choose to interpret it, this has brought about a revolution that is unprecedented in human evolution.
Last year, the BBC celebrated the power of the Web with a season of riveting programmes across online, radio and television in all its language services, probing how the Internet today affects our lives and has become the catalyst for change around the world. And in calling it SuperPower: The Extraordinary Power of the Internet, it couldn’t have come up with a more apt title for the series. Today, there are hundreds of millions of Internet users in the world and they are growing by the minute and hour. And this is just the beginning. For only a fifth of the world’s population is connected to the Net.
When the less advantaged come on board, it’s impossible to imagine what the future would look like. What I really love about the Net is its democratising power. The wave of change sweeping the Middle East right now couldn’t have perhaps been so swift and overpowering without the Net and role social media have played. The Net is a great leveller and is fast challenging the powers that be and bridging the divide between the haves and have-nots.
I have seen this happen back home in India. Tens of millions of homes and thousands of remote villages across the country that had for long years lived in total isolation and deprivation are getting on to the information superhighway. From the far-flung villages and towns to large urban centres, the IT revolution is not just making a difference in day-to-day living but empowering ordinary people in a way never imagined possible. They are more aware of their rights and privileges as citizens of the largest democracy on earth and how to assert them. This knowledge is not just liberating them socially and politically but it is reflecting itself in education, health and development of their children and grandchildren.
If India is today viewed as one of the two next superpowers, some credit goes to the Internet revolution that it embraced early on. It’s the same story next door in China. The comrades have masterfully used the power of technology and the Net to transform the economy. Real credit of course goes to years of hard work and enterprising spirit of the billion plus people. Today, China has turned the tables on Uncle Sam sitting as it does on mountains of dollars in US government bonds. These lessons are being emulated around the world.
What are we doing in the Middle East? Despite being a young nation, the UAE has been the first country in the region to enthusiastically embrace the Web miracle. In fact, the country is perhaps the best example how technology can be harnessed to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.
Today, thanks to its e-governance system, you do not have to step out of your home to use or access any government or public services. From banking and trading online to paying your traffic fines, everything is just a click away, literally. Others are yet to realise the power and potential of Internet to change lives of their multitudes. Despite its rich human and natural resources, including the big Oil, the Middle East remains one of the most backward regions in terms of education, employment, health and political and economic empowerment. The Muslim countries – and disadvantaged people everywhere –have a powerful weapon and ally in Information Technology to fight the challenges facing their people. By embracing the superpower of Internet and the watershed change it represents, the oppressed and the voiceless have an opportunity of taking charge of their destiny.
I know this is easier said than done in a region where even traditional media are still evolving and have to constantly look over their shoulders. Governments view the Net and the freedom it offers with great suspicion. But we have to stop looking at the Net as an enemy because it’s not. It can be a friend and ally of the powerless. One example is the shifting global opinion on the Middle East. Thousands of bloggers or citizen journalists are not only challenging the power and narrative of mainstream media—many of them owned and controlled by pro-Israel lobbies—but are offering their own alternate reality and even setting the news agenda.
If the tide of world public opinion is turning and is forcing Western governments to reconsider their blind support to Israel, credit goes to this electronic Intifada. In the age of Internet, bloggers and Twitter and 24/7 satellite television, it’s no longer possible for rogue states to get away with murder. And Israel’s powerful friends with their deep pockets and clout are beginning to discover this. It makes sense to have this powerful force and voice on our side, not against us. Biggest losers are those who aren’t part of this revolution.