Change is predictable, the rate of change is not. Typically governments trail people in adoption but when a government manages to change before becoming irrelevant, leaders can usually avoid exile or execution.
The new year has brought with it several major and minor headlines that, though reported disparately, show government leaders engaging with technology that connects them to the millions of plebeians.
Consider the report from the Digital Policy Council that 75% of the world’s heads of state are now on Twitter. Given that less than 75% of the world’s countries are industrialized, Twitter is becoming less of a Silicon Valley triviality and more of a legitimate way to communicate.
Using Twitter shows a conscious choice to connect with people and to make oneself available. A leader on Twitter suggests that he or she anticipates a gain from public engagement. Such thinking is hardly new in the United States, where kissing babies and shaking hands are political cliches. But in areas of the world where leaders could ignore the public, the evident change to mindset matters.
Twitter also provides one of the few- if only- times that a head of state and the average Joe use the same platform to communicate. Even in “town hall meetings” with politicians, where the average Joe became temporarily famous, people must wait for permission to ask a question. With Twitter, leaders do not issue statements fro balconies or news broadcasts but with the same platform available to everyone else.
What this ultimately means is open to guessing but Twitter does not a revolution make. North Korea’s government “inexplicably” follows a web-programmer from Texas with a penchant for Coldplay. Twitter adoption hardly implies unfettered tweeting: in some parts of the world, tweets will now be censored. And so, as seems inevitable, technology gains lurch ahead as governments impede limber, linear movement.
While some decry Twitter’s assent to censor tweets in some countries as a threat to free speech, consider instead the overall benefit to access. Restricted access beats no access and government-imposed limits are hardly intractable. The Chinese government censors its citizen’s Internet usage but people still find ways to work around the system.
Just what Eric Schmidt, of Google, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson chatted about with North Korean officials will likely escape public knowledge. Though the US State department reportedly cautioned against the meeting, a welcome from an isolated and occasionally aggressive country to a flagship American technology company can only be positive. The meeting shows a willingness, on some level, to engage with technology rather than to ban it out of fear.
North Korea’s contemporary history makes clear that regimes can outlast sanctions but people cannot. Google could be one small way to give North Korea’s people some of what they perennially miss. Though the hermit regime has made it clear that it cares little about its people’s welfare, it seems to care about its international reputation. Schmidt released a statement that tied Internet openness to international prestige; North Korea’s government has made substantial investments in technology over the past several years.
That Al Jazeera, a name that automatically intimidates some, may likely make its way into American homes has provided new kindling for some inflammatory rhetoric. Whether or not the network has ties to terrorists or is operated by the Qatar royal family matters little. The business deal shows a Middle Eastern organization interested in using technology to connect with America.
Given that Americans can freely choose between television channels and, more broadly, between many forms of entertainment and platforms, Al Jazeera would have a difficult time inundating any American with any sort of propaganda. Those interested in propaganda can find it regardless of what’s on tv. Suppose the purchase of Current TV was part of some kind of conspiracy, maintaining such a venture would become a monetary black hole.
More likely, the deal is a simple business venture. Whether owned by Gore or the Qatar government, Current TV’s profitability will ultimately depend on viewership through engaging and entertaining programming; religious fundamentalism usually implies indefinitely delayed gratification.
But even as international governments and American businesses reach agreements, other, long-standing relationships have difficulties. The French government, at the behest of French publishers, may soon require Google to pay for French content. Many observers see the announcement as a belated attempt to help publishers as they lay dying: morphine rather than euthanasia.
The French government’s reaction to Google is classic, if ill-advised. Though, the Luddites had some sense of heroism that legislation lacks.
In the annals of history such events, even if search engine optimized will likely be little more than side links on a digital narrative. For now, though, they still pup up on the Twitter feed and when taken together show that though technology can unify people, the actual people adopt it haphazardly.