Which is more important: politics or technology?

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 26 2010 11:59 PM

Apple vs. Obama

Which is more important: politics or technology?

See images from Obama's first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

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Over the long term, politics can't compete with technology's power. Look at Obama's latest proposals  to make college more affordable. They're a pittance compared with the cost-cutting force of online education. Millions of Americans are taking college courses through the Internet for $200 per credit or less. MIT, the Princeton Review, and other heavyweights are extending this option  to more people here and abroad.

Or look at medicine. While Obama struggles to cut costs, the health care industry is engaging networked monitoring devices, tracking software, and two-way video cameras  so that doctors can supervise more patients in less time. Better yet, the latest wireless implants allow doctors anywhere in the world to look directly at what's going on in your body. The same goes for surgery. Last year, doctors in this country removed 80,000 prostate glands indirectly, by operating consoles that control surgical machines. Insert a broadband connection, and those surgeries can be done remotely.

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Politics can harness technology and sometimes influence it. Obama owes his election in part to digital microtargeting, online network-building, and a list of 13 million e-mail addresses. But more often, technology overwhelms politics. Around the world, information networks are shaking the foundations of authoritarian regimes. In Iran, cell phone cameras have exposed state brutality  [warning: violent imagery], and e-mail chains have relayed incriminating videos  out of the country. In Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, tweets and text messages have mobilized mass protests.

Governments are trying hard to control this technology. And they're failing. Flash drives, memory sticks, and smuggled satellite dishes have foiled Cuba's efforts  to block Internet access. Egypt, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand have resorted to old-fashioned arrests, hoping to intimidate dissidents they can't isolate online.

The most aggressive censors, China and Iran, use filtering software  to monitor Web content and block sites they don't like. China also has an army of human censors 40,000 strong. But no army or great wall can stop a viral epidemic. Through downloads, e-mails, and instant messages, troublemakers abroad continue to supply Chinese and Iranian citizens with software that lets them sneak out. By routing their queries and messages through foreign proxy servers, these citizens can see and communicate with the outside world. Their bodies are trapped inside their nations' firewalls, but their minds roam free.

Will the Apple tablet overshadow Obama? I don't know. But here's my bet: If January 2010 ends up being remembered for a political speech, it won't be Obama's. It'll be the speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered Thursday. Clinton denounced Internet censorship around the world as an "information curtain" akin to the Iron Curtain of the Soviet era. She championed the "freedom to connect"—an updated, online version of freedom of assembly. And she outlined a place for politics in the march of information technology. "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress," she observed. "But the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."

That's a pretty good manifesto for the next century. We don't have to be bigger than tomorrow's machines. We just have to teach them and their users to play well with others.

Human Nature's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

Correction, Jan. 27, 2010: I originally miscalculated this number as 250,000. I should have used a computer. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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