The tendency to map our world with our own country or region front and center is well documented and reasonably well-understood, at least intellectually. When someone from America sees a map with, say, Peru in the middle, with south in the up position, it still creates some dissonance. But that dissonance can be useful, beyond simply disabusing ourselves of the notion of our own centrality. It can make the world, including our own homes, new again and impart us with an urge to understand how elsewhere affects here.
Instead of focusing on the capital of the Web, Silicon Valley, or even on one of the Silicon Valleys outside of the original, like Bangalore, India, Farivar has taken a look at our wired world through the lenses of South Korea, Senegal, Estonia and Iran.
There is a tendency to think of the Internet as being a priori and sui generis. This is a new world so powerful and so game-changing that it effects history and culture, no matter where one stands. Farivar’s argument, and it is a well-made one, is that like any other element of the human experience, the Internet is effected by history and culture. If we ignore that fact, if we let ourselves believe that the Internet, not history, is more of a determining factor in our future, we are liable to be surprised by it to an excessive degree.
Each of the places he covers are important to our understanding of the Internet because their histories and cultures have influenced how they have embraced it. In a way, the countries he has chosen to profile are reflections of each other, Senegal of South Korea and Estonia of Iran.
South Korea has innovated two things: professional gaming leagues and citizen journalism. With a block on much of the tech coming out of Japan (given how Japan treated Korea in World War II the restrictions are many), Korea’s game of choice is StarCraft. Ohmynews was like a new planet when it burst on the scene in 2004.
Both of these things are direct results of the history of Korea, that is, its past (its geopolitical position and struggle with Japan) and its present, where it is one of the greatest providers of free broadband Internet access to its citizens.
Although Senegal is the most wired country in Africa, it does not have the infrastructure in Korea, meaning that most computing is done inefficiently in Internet cafes. Like Korea, the country’s leadership is pro-Internet and focuses a great deal of attention and emphasis on it. But this attention is top-down and insufficiently distributed. No matter how much a country’s upper echelons believe in something, if they do not have the capacity to make it possible for everyone to contribute to building that belief, there is a good chance it will die. Even if it does not, it is destined to stagnate, or at least plateau.
Despite being a politically stable, relatively prosperous country, Senegal’s reality is Africa’s: a raft of intelligent, interested people working against a history of compromised infrastructural elements.
Where Korea has widespread, fast and reasonably-priced broadband, Estonia has widespread, fast and reasonably-priced (often free) Wi-Fi. This in part explains the success of Estonian companies, with Skype in the lead, only 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The half-century occupation left Estonia an apparently broken country.
But its history of facing, and considering itself part of, the West, was not easily expunged. When the opportunities were available again, mostly when the obstacles were removed, Estonians went crazy innovating Web tools and companies. Now it has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the world, as well as a lot of time to make up. Like South Korea and Senegal, this access to an almost complete national Wi-Fi blanket is both an expression of citizen will and an expression of political will at the highest levels.
Although China probably has to receive the Palm D’Or of online repression, Iran is competing in the same league. Using the same combination of tools pioneered by the Chinese – laws, social checks and technological filtering – Iran’s Internet has been rendered a third-class communications network. The Iranian leadership recognized early on that they had a citizenry with a long history of intellectual and technological competence and that the Internet was going to prove important in the future. Members of the Iranian leadership began to utilize social media to promote their points of view and continue to do so today.
The three big ideas I took away from this book were these.
- History matters. As “disruptive” as web technology is, the history of a country or region, right down to the present moment, profoundly and tangibly affects how that place and its people will respond to that disruption. Farivar did a particularly good job of outlining the relationship between each of these countries’ histories and their relationship to the wired world.
- Political will. The will of a country’s leadership is important but it is not enough. The innovation of a ruling group must either reflect its people’s will, or inspire their imagination.
- Opportunity. Human beings are experimental and (in the broadest sense) entrepreneurial. If their impulse toward giving the Web a go are checked, due to lack of connectedness, unaffordability or overt limitation, it will check intellectual and financial prosperity. Individuals, whether app programmers in Senegal or dissidents in Iran, will move forward, but the society as a whole will not.