by Craig Warren Smith
Absent from the enthusiastic press coverage of Egypt’s democratic revolution are two important trends that didn’t get mentioned: the IT Diaspora Factor and Democracy 2.0. Both notions are essential to strategies for closing the Digital Divide and for our agenda at Digital Divide Institute.
The best and brightest young techies from authoritarian nations like Egypt escape to America for a higher education; they stick around USA for a while to work for companies like Google. They often meet each other abroad, forming an “IT diaspora” of early adopters of new technologies from each country. But they are hardly revolutionaries in the Che Guevara mold. They are mostly just techies with a typical geeky disdain for politics, and a preference for open societies and open systems. Nonetheless, some eventually return home. When they do, they can have a disruptive effect that can change the world.
Consider Wsel Ghonim, a mild-mannered Egyptian, who was named Product and Marketing Manager for the Middle East for Google. After getting a finance degree from American University and spending some time at Mountain View CA Google headquarters, he returned to his home region (Dubai). His job was to promote the ArabNet conference and sell Google AdWords vouchers to small businesses in an effort to grow an incipient ecommerce economy, upon which Google’s profits demand. In Dubai, he was like so many others from many companies and countries who launched Arab-language websites. Their purpose was basic: to teach people how to search, chat and email.
Nothing particularly political about that, right?
Well, Ghonim got pissed after one of his Egyptian clients, Ali Khaled Said, published a web site that revealed photos documenting corruption by police. The police immediately hauled Khaled out of a Cairo internet café, beat and murdered him, while others in the internet café quietly snapped photos on their mobile phones.
Mr. Ghonim used those photos for a Facebook page he created called “We Are All Khaled Said.” That visual evidence undermined the official explanations for his death. The Facebook page immediately attracted some 500,000 members and, voila, the revolution had begun.
Mr. Ghonim’s story reminds me of an experience I had while lecturing at Google in 2003.. Looking out into the vast, multicolored young faces in my audience, it was obvious that they were just in the early phase of their careers. Chatting with some of them later, they explained they were just there to get the skills they need before they go back to their country – from Estonia to Mongolia — to bring the transformational impact of broadband (and Google) to the benefit of their people. Many of them admitted to feeling uneasy and even guilty at the luxury surrounding them at Google which seems more like a 5-star spa than a corporate headquarters.
This is an old story, as old as the digital economy. We first heard about it in the 90s from the young Irish who overcame decades of terrorism promulgated by their griping elders, to turn Ireland into a peaceful IT hub. In the next decade we heard from the “oversees Indians”, who left their posts at MIT, McKinsey & Co, Oracle and IBM to return to Banglore, and Hydrabad as whose 24/7 lifestyles, transformed and boosted the Indian domestic economy. Now we are seeing a different version of the same trend: A handful of brilliant “early adopters” from oppressed countries who use their skills to clear out the bad guys so that markets could be built. In the meantime, they go through a rite of passage. They grow up. They have stories to tell their grandparents, who mostly still live in rural villagers: Mr. Ghonim has bragging rights: “You see, grandpa, we Google-ites not just selfish yuppies. We are protectors of our homelands.” This is the sort of story that the mythologist Joseph Cambell, once called A Heroes Return.
This brings us back to the second trend, the democratizing effect of broadband, called Democracy 2.0. That revolution, postponed by George W. Bush, has just begun. Soon, many IT Egyptians will pour back to Cairo, establishing its digital economy.