By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai
The weather in Dubai still remains gorgeous. So much so that a lazy, couch potato like me drags himself for an occasional walk around the sprawling Zabeel Park in my neighborhood. My wife and kids back home in India though complain of shooting March temperatures in the Deccan Plateau amid perennial power cuts.
This is their first summer in Hyderabad after seven years in the Middle East. And they are still getting used to the big change. This is a huge change for me too. Hopelessly missing them, I watch the kids all the time on my laptop as they battle the annual exam nightmare and the subcontinent summer, going through the ordeal that one went, it seems, not long ago.
We stay in touch thanks to the blessings of broadband Internet, seeing and chatting with each other as if we are in the same room. The distance of thousands of miles has 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 or Internet in particular 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 the 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.
The BBC is celebrating the power of the Web with a rather interesting season of programs across online, radio and television in all its language services, investigating how the Internet today affects our lives and has become the catalyst for change around the world.
Despite its rather staid, old-fashioned approach to journalism (some choose to call it the British Boredcasting Corporation!), no one can beat the old Beebs when it comes to covering the globe. It is using its extensive network of correspondents, bureaus and resources to take a closer look at the awesome power of the Net. And in calling it SuperPower: The Extraordinary Power of the Internet, it couldn’t have possibly come up with a more apt title for the series.
Today, there are 1,727,263,328 Internet users in the world and these numbers are growing by the minute and hour. Over the past three years alone, the high-speed Net users have jumped from 200 million to 400 million. 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 democratizing power. It’s a great leveler 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 centers, 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 and its economy continues to buzz amid global doom and gloom, significant credit goes to the Internet revolution that it embraced very early on.
It’s the same story next door in China. Despite their single-party system and political restrictions, the Chinese 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. Other countries in the region are yet to realize the phenomenal power of Internet and its potential 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.
There are historical reasons and centuries of colonial exploitation behind this state of affairs. But the Arab and Muslim countries – and disadvantaged people everywhere – now have a powerful weapon in the Net and Information Technology to fight the challenges facing their people.
For far too long, the greater Middle East has been the playground of big powers and their endless, little games of manipulation. The dispossession of Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans is only part of story.
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 like newspapers 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 great ally of the powerless. One example is the shifting global opinion on the Middle East.
Thousands of bloggers or citizen journalists, as they are called, are not only challenging the power and narrative of the Western media — many of them owned and controlled by pro-Israel lobbies — but are offering their own alternate reality and setting the news agenda.
If the tide of world public opinion is turning against the Zionists and is perhaps for the first time forcing Western governments to reconsider their blind support to Israel, we should thank 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 on the Capitol hill are beginning to realize this.
It makes sense to have such a powerful force on our side, not against us. Biggest losers are those who aren’t part of this revolution.
– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.