|By Roger Strukhoff||
|December 1, 2010 11:12 AM EST||
I had a chance to read the book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace, recently, published in 2005 and written by longtime NPR international correspondent Micahael Goldfarb. It is the story of a writer and teacher, Ahmad Shawkut, who suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein, then thought he had achieved intellectual freedom when Hussein was ousted, only to be murdered during the early days of the US occupation in Iraq.
The book had nothing to do with Cloud Computing, or technology for that matter, other than to offer brief descriptions of the satellite phones in use there and to note that Iraqi police stations had no computers. Its author generally maintained a measured tone throughout, with occasional bursts of rage when describing the gulf between what supercilious commentators in the US say happened versus what really did happen to many ordinary Iraqi citizens during this war.
Yet it struck me as another example of a place where IT could and should be used as a true liberating force.
IT Irony in the US and UK
There is appalling irony, and lots of it, in the US and UK today regarding how IT has been turned into a weapon by these countries' governments against their people. Ubiquitous cameras throughout London have now given the British government a perpetual view of its citizens acts and perhaps intentions, at least in their public lives. Meanwhile, in the US, domestic spying revelations no doubt form only the tip of an iceberg, and it turns out to be true that thousands of images of people's junk have been saved for future reference and who know what else.
Whatever one's opinion of Julian Assenge and WikiLeaks is, it seems that most would agree that Attorney General Eric Holder is being ludicrous with his "this is not saber rattling" threats to arrest a foreign citizen who published material at a foreign-based website. The US got to experience life as the world's lone superpower for a 12-year period from 1989 to 2001; it demonstrated that it was not the sort of imperium that would try to enslave the part of the world it couldn't obliterate, but also showed the world that it could not function as either the world's policeman or beacon of ethics.
Failure is the Only Option
The lost decade of the "aughts," precipitated financially by the Clinton administration's pursuit of Microsoft in court (go back and look, you'll see the dot-com crash started when Redmond was perceived as the evil empire), then socially by a mission that was not accomplished quite as expeditiously as the Bush administration thought, left the United States in an amazing financial mess, and seemingly toothless in international affairs.
The President flies to Denmark to try to convince sneering Euros to let Chicago have the Olympics. Fail. The Vice-President gets insulted by the country's Israeli allies in unprecedented fashion, only to accede to ever more demands. Fail. The President goes to India, begging for business from a nation with an average wealth 2% of the US. He moves onto South Korea, unable to secure the most basic trade agreement. He continues to Japan, where no one remembers even now that he was there. Fail, fail, and fail.
This is not a commentary on the President, but rather, the parlous situation the United States finds itself in today. These failures follow several decades of foreign misadventure, an increasingly obese and uneducated public that doesn't really like to vote much, and a debased media that thinks it's being destroyed by the Internet rather than by its own irrelevance.
Don't Abandon All Hope, Ye
But the great hope of IT as liberation technology lives elsewhere. It chips away at a priggish Chinese government's attempts to control it utterly. It serves as an invaluable tool for on-the-spot reporting of social disruption from Toronto to Bangkok. It is a key contributor to increased standards of living throughout the world, especially in those countries that are the most aggressive in its adoption, from Morocco and Senegal to Ukraine and Poland to Malaysia and Vietnam.
And Iraq. Ahmad Shawkut, in the book about him, was a dreamer, and an argumentative one, a guy who couldn't (wouldn't) put a lid on his opinions to save his own skin. He is not presented as wholly heroic, as the author notes the stress he put on his family and the futility of much of his utopian thinking. Mr. Shawkut loved the metaphysical, not the practical.
But he was undone by a place in which secrets and gossip pass quickly and unendingly through dark alleyways, as they have for thousands of years. If the police did, in fact, have some computers, if the populace did have wide access to the Web, if people were able to see beyond the limited horizon of the local ridgeline, then the Ahmad Shawkuts of the world could gain the influence they simply don't have today. Yes, in my opinion, Cloud Computing's potential to transform societies is even greater than its potential to transform datacenters.
One can only wish that the citizens of the US and UK can someday better restrain the power of their governments to misuse IT, just as other governments of the world can better bring IT's advantages to their citizens.
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