Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tools of Empowerment

The Dali Lama, Tibet’s exiled Spiritual leader was rebuffed in his efforts to attend the first peace lecture put on by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa due to an official reason of a still-pending visa application, though many suspect the South African government has other motivations for keeping him out. Safe to say, the Dali Lama wasn’t able to physically attend, so big brother wins right? They strong-arm the vocal minority with big brother like tactics, such as, well, never approving a visa application by the Dali Lama for entry.

Home-jailed world-renowned Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, fresh off a several-month real-jail detainment is forbidden from leaving the country due to supposed tax evasion. Popular fashion imprint W magazine wants Weiwei to art direct their annual issue dedicated to art, a role traditionally performed on set for obvious reasons. The Chinese government wins right? Game over, Ai Weiwei’s art direction would be impossible without his presence, surely the establishment wins again, correct?

Twenty years ago, yes, today, no.

We live in an age where technology transcends boundaries once thought impenetrable.

The Dali Lama met Desmond Tutu in a Google+ Hangout (video conversation) that was broadcast to anyone in the world with an internet connection that cared to join.

Via Skype and a laptop Mr. Ai directed a striking photo essay virtually from his home in China set at Rikers island jail, a symbolic location for the assignment.

Is the world better for the meeting of the Dali Lama, and by virtue of the forum, being able to watch it live, and the Ai Weiwei photo essay? Time will tell, but certainly at first glance simply allowing people to participate peacefully in acts that aim to shed light on issues plaguing people today is, to understate here, important.

Our world now has tools, communicative and otherwise, that can be harnessed to achieve the once impossible. The kicker here, the really funny bit of all this, are the tools used in both cases above are readily available to anyone with a laptop and the internet. The days of governments using big bankrolls to defeat vocal outliers are numbered in large part by the affordability and accessibility of such tools. For a few dollars you could feasibly use Skype in every capacity for a year, and Google+ is entirely free. In other words, the tools that empower movements the most are readily available to nearly anyone with a computer and the internet, which at last blush includes the majority of Americans.

In the information age the arms race is no longer Scud missiles or WMD’s, but control of Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts. As powerful as the truth is, as high of a standard as democracy in the U.S and other first world nations have set, no second-rate government of oppression is acceptable to the world’s people. Somebody in North Korea watched Real Housewives of New York, and asked why they couldn’t one day drive a Bentley or become part of a societal elite, or at least make enough to have running water, a reliable power grid, and fresh food to eat. The answer to the question in their head haunts them, they know it’s possible, they know democracy is a living growing organism, and they are starting to figure out that via social networks and the internet the days of oppression-focused regimes are numbered.

A wonderful quote from an organizer of the Arab Spring revolutions went something like this, we use Facebook for organizing our protest, and Twitter to tell the world about it. These revolutionaries didn’t need to ask the FCC for permission, or beg NBC or CBS for airtime, they simply used the same social media websites we all do, and brought cause and call to action to the message.

I wonder what bright minds around the world might be able to do if they thought more about the tools we have at our disposal for circumventing once dominate oppressors? Can you imagine the Berlin Wall being up today? Would someone not think to share information online, organize, and protest until it was torn down, the regime with it? Surely they would, and now comes the question, what Berlin Walls remain? What revolutions are bubbling to the surface, and if important to you, knowing the incredible power of the tools available, how can you be part of them?

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