Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Smartphones, SMAC, Political Chaos and Hope

Capturing the physical world and
digitizing it.
Wael Ghonim, a former manager for Google in Egypt, and others used Facebook and Twitter to organize demonstrations throughout Cairo that ultimately forced a regime change.

While Twitter, Facebook and YouTube received most of the publicity for their roles in disseminating information during the Arab Spring, it was the smartphone connected to the Internet and SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) solutions that made it all possible. Smartphones enabled information to be collected, packaged and transmitted for mass distribution in near real-time.

Matt J. Duffy, a teacher of journalism and new media at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirate writes, "During the January 25 protests in Egypt, for instance, protesters would carry their smartphones with them into the streets.  They could offer first-hand reports using their smartphones connected to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Often their information was verified with short video clips or photographs taken from their phones and effortlessly weaved into Facebook or Twitter updates."  Rick Sanchez, a former CNN correspondent, added his views that, "The smartphone is and was “The best piece of news equipment ever invented.”

Mobile technologies connected to the Internet have demonstrated their ability to influence and organize change, and to help people become free from autocrats, but has it actually made things better?  Change, as we know, does not always equal better.

Author Thomas L. Friedman wrote a series of articles in the New York Times this month titled Order vs. Disorder.  In this week's article he quoted his teacher and author Dov Seidman, “Protecting and enabling freedoms,” says Seidman, “requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together.”

Many people, at no fault of their own, are born in lands with limited opportunities and freedoms.  The components identified above, that are necessary for long-term freedoms simply don't exist.  What chance have these people to realize their dreams of freedom? Where is hope to be found?  In many regions leadership change is frequent, but the results seem to remain the same.  So the ability to influence change does not equal making things better.

It is necessary when thinking about complex and important issues to first define terms.  Friedman writes there are different ways of defining freedom.  He explains that over the past few years many peoples in search of freedoms have overthrown or replaced autocrats, systems and governments, and in doing so have become "free-from" them, but often they failed to achieve the notion of "free-to."  They have failed to become "free-to" vote in a democratic government, have a reasonable level of personal security, practice their religion in a safe environment, express themselves in art, express one's opinions in public without fear, establish the rule of law, gain an education for both sexes, create a trusted and stable economic system where one can engage in commerce and wealth generation, etc.  The concept of "free-to" rather than "free-from" is powerful.  How can mobile technologies promote and support an environment that is "free-to?"

Friedman goes on to write, "Values-based legal systems and institutions are just what so many societies have failed to build after overthrowing their autocrats." That’s why the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces:
  1. Countries with “sustainable order,” or order based on shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics
  2. Countries with "imposed order," or order based on an iron-fisted, top-down leadership, or propped-up by oil money, or combinations of both, but no real shared values or institutions
  3. Regions of "disorder," where there is neither an iron fist from above nor shared values from below to hold states together.
Can mobile technologies not just support and influence "free-from" efforts, but also "free-to" efforts?" I believe the answer is yes.
  • I think of mobile payments supported by stable, trusted multinational organizations that adhere to internationally accepted norms and laws.  Multinational organizations beyond the control of regional "imposed order" or "disorder."  They provide trusted mobile apps and mobile payment systems with cross-border and multi-currency support.  They provide transparency and accountability.  They enable direct payments to mobile phone accounts that are beyond the reach of corrupt hands.
  • I think of mobile commerce.  The ability to buy and sell via online markets beyond the control of local thugs  
  • I think of online education available to anyone with Internet connectivity and a smartphone.
  • I think of the ability to share ideas, organize and to collaborate using mobile phones.
  • I think of idea exchanges and connections that enhance innovations
  • I think of micro-loans that enable start-ups and small businesses to grow 
  • I think of data collection and news reporting in near real-time via mobile devices
Can shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics, the building blocks of a "free-to" environment, also be developed and supported via mobile devices connected to the Internet?  If peoples suffering under "imposed order" or "disorder" cannot realize the "free-to" environment within their country's borders, can they find it beyond in a mobile and digital world?

In considering current immigration debates, it is apparent the country you are born into means a lot. At birth you are either a winner or loser of life's lottery based on which side of a border you find yourself. On one side there is an abundance of "free-tos" and opportunities, while on the other there is not. Is it possible that we can change this model? Can mobile technologies and the Internet help create a more flexible boundary - perhaps even a mobile boundary beyond the control of local despots.  A boundary that can be reshaped and expanded as a result of mobile and digital technologies?  Can the digital world with mobile boundaries provide many of the "free-tos" that man-made borders on a map often deny today?  Can there be a digital universe in parallel to the physical where "free-tos" exist in abundance and are but a smartphone connection to the Internet away?

In the long-term, will the digital world be able to influence and shape the physical world to make it a better place?  I think the answer lies in how we move forward into the digital future.  Will we be able to move beyond our digital minutia, selfies and cat videos into nobler pursuits?  For the good of all, will we create shared values, stable and trusted institutions and consensual politics in the digital realm where we have failed in the physical?  Can we become a digital community of people who not only believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together, beyond the reach of despots, or will the tribalism and violence of the physical world invade and corrupt the digital as well?

Kevin Benedict
Writer, Speaker, Senior Analyst
Digital Transformation, EBA, Center for the Future of Work Cognizant
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I am a mobility and digital transformation analyst, consultant and writer. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.