Technology Powers Revolutions and Saves Lives

The cell phone was the star of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

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We live in an astonishing world. Just think for a moment of the amazing power you have in your hand when you pick up a cellphone, the star of the revolutions now shaking autocracies.

The cellphone is only a few ounces in weight and a few inches in dimensions. It is about a thousandth the size of, and a millionth the price of, the most powerful computer at MIT 40 years ago. Yet that small phone is a thousand times more powerful in both its technology and its potential for change. Even the computer geniuses are stunned by what they've achieved. Tom Rolander was the partner with the late Gary Kildall in creating the code for an operating system for the personal computer. He marveled the other day that in his 30-year career, the processing power of supercomputers has increased over 1 billion times—by over nine orders of magnitude!

[See a slide show of the best Apps for iPhone, iPad.]

So much for the speed with which millions of bytes of data can be transmitted and received. Consumers have recognized the social and commercial utility with almost comparable speed. The networked population has grown over the last two decades from the low millions to the billions. There are over 5 billion cellphone users and over 2 billion Internet users. They have historic access to information and to one another. They have seized the technology's facility to provide a common platform for virtual communities, whether through Facebook, Twitter, Google, or news websites, where they can share their views and experiences with untold numbers of others.

We have seen, too, how the technology makes it possible to summon millions to a common cause virtually overnight. The technology revolution has become the handmaiden of political revolution on a scale nobody envisaged. Every agitated citizen is now a potential revolutionary. Unwise governments will resist liberalization in the name of "order." Governments used to ruling by fiat have been especially slow to recognize what it means when the advancing technology empowers their people, but dramatic change in connectivity cannot fail to have stunning political and social impact.

The history of political change and progress is a history of communication. Paul Revere's midnight ride to Lexington to warn that the British were on their way to seize an arms cache in Concord is known to every schoolboy (or used to be!). The American revolutionaries developed their shared beliefs using the postal service designed by Benjamin Franklin. The printing press helped democratize Europe before those nations edged toward democratic forms of government. Same, too, with Martin Luther protesting the Catholic Church.

In modern times, the 1979 Iranian revolution against the shah was sparked by messages on cassette tapes recorded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the 1980s we had the growth of the samizdat movement in the Soviet Union (samizdat meaning self-published), in which activists found creative ways around censorship to publish protests against human rights abuses. Those brave souls had no Web. They had carbon paper, photocopiers, and fax machines. Those less smothered had radio and television to bring about political action. "Tear down this wall," said President Reagan, and words that might have been heard by a few hundred in Abraham Lincoln's time reverberated around the world.

Technology has transformed media from the one-to-the-many nature of TV into the many-to-the-many-more geometry of social media. Cellular networks have become what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as "the public space of the 21st century."

[Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

In 2001 in the Philippines, the political compromising of the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada provoked text messaging that brought out over a million people in Manila. They coalesced into a political force strong enough to force Estrada out. In the past months, in Tunisia, and then Egypt, millions were galvanized by brutal deaths that added powerful emotions to years of grievances. Who could have imagined how convulsive it would be when dissent found an angry voice in text messages, the Arab TV network Al Jazeera, international cable television, websites (including the inspired role of the local Google manager), and social media.