Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Tue 22 Nov 11 20:07
This week Inkwell welcome's Cyrus Farivar as our guest. Cyrus Farivar is an Iranian-American freelance technology journalist, radio producer and author currently living in the city of Bonn, Germany. He is the science and technology editor at Deutsche Welle English and is the host of DWs weekly internationally-syndicated radio program Spectrum. Previously, he has lived in Oakland (California, USA), Lyon (France), New York (USA), Saint-Louis (Senegal), Melbourne (Australia), Berkeley (California, USA) and in a small village 20 km from Geneva (Switzerland). He was born and raised in Santa Monica (California, USA). His book, The Internet of Elsewhere about the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world, including Senegal, Iran, Estonia and South Korea was published by Rutgers University Press in April 2011. He reports for National Public Radio, The World (WGBH/PRI/BBC), and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He also freelances for The Economist, Foreign Policy, Slate, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, and Wired. Leading the interview will be our own <jonl>, Jon Lebkowsky. Jon Lebkowsky is an author, activist, journalist, and blogger who writes about the future of the Internet, digital culture, media, and society. Hes been associated with various projects and organizations, including FringeWare, Whole Earth, WorldChanging, Mondo 2000, bOING bOING, Factsheet Five, the WELL, the Austin Chronicle, EFF-Austin, Society of Participatory Medicine, Extreme Democracy, Digital Convergence Initiative, Plutopia Productions, Polycot Consulting, Social Web Strategies, Solar Austin, Well Aware, and Project VRM. Hes also a web strategist and developer via Polycot Associates. Welcome to Inkwell, Jon and Cyrus.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 27 Nov 11 16:44
Thanks, Julie. Very happy to be part of this discussion. Cyrus, your book is an eye-opener for those of us who tend to have a US-centric view of the Internet's development. You look at the history and impact of Interet adoption in Korea, Senegal, Estonia, and Iran. What led you to write about these four countries, in particular?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Mon 28 Nov 11 10:39
Hi Jon, Julie and everyone else! It's great to be part of such a great online forum. Jon: This is a great question, and it's one that I get often -- understandably so. There's not an obvious link between these places. But that said, I wanted to examine a range of countries, geographically, culturally, economically and socially. I see these countries as being on a spectrum, with South Korea (the world's most wired country) anchoring one end. In Internet-related studies, we often talk about "Internet penetration," which is the number of people online divided by that country's population. Although it only has 81% of its people online, I think it qualifies as the world's most wired as its population has 95% broadband -- the cheapest, fastest and most widespread in the world. The basic question that I wanted to find out, was why? How is that this East Asian country has the highest level of Internet connectivity in the world? Why isn't the US or UK or Japan at this level? What is it about this country that led to this situation? That's fundamentally what this book is about: what emerges from a country when the Internet arrives and collides with existing political/economic/social history? What emerges from this collision, or in some cases, doesn't? We often talk about the Internet (or technology as a whole) playing a role of agency -- see recent talk of "social media-powered revolutions" and the like. Moving on down the spectrum comes is where Estonia comes in - with 75% - is on par with the US, and actually is lower than many other EU countries. But it caught my eye first six years ago when I read in the Christian Science Monitor that the country had declared Internet access as a human right. I read more about it and found out that it was the home of Skype and had free WiFi everywhere -- and I asked myself the same question: why did all of this happen in Estonia? And also, where is Estonia, anyway? At that time, I -- like I think most Americans -- only know that Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union, but that's it. And as I dug into Estonia I learned more about its history and other types of tech things that makes it interesting, such as e-voting. While the US can barely get paper voting right, Estonia has had Internet-based voting for nearly a decade. If we jump a bit down the Internet penetration spectrum, and slide over to the Middle East, we arrive at Iran, which is a country near and dear to my heart: my father was born and raised there and I have a lot of extended family there. Iran is a country that's young (70% of the population is 30 or younger), educated (more than half the country is university-educated, with over 80% literacy), and wired (about 33-35% Internet penetration). So that means that you have a situation where lots of young people who are frustrated with the government, particularly as Internet use has grown significantly over the last decade, are using online tools (blogs, etc) to speak out against the government. But, what's also interesting is that as the failed so-called "Twitter Revolution" (a term I don't like) shows, the Iranian government is fully willing and capable of using the Internet - both in terms of online monitoring/surveillance and propaganda - to serve its own ends. And finally, we come to Senegal, which is another country that I have emotional and academics resonance to. I lived there as a student during a study abroad 2002-2003 when I was a UC Berkeley undergrad. I ended up writing my academic thesis about Senegal. But the main reason why I picked Senegal is that it is on the other end of the spectrum - not 0% - but is one of the world's best least-connected countries, at about 10 or 12%. But the thing that makes Senegal interesting is that on paper, it should have the potential to do really well. It is economically and politically stable, has a relatively high literacy rate (around 40%) and is well-situated geographically to have good connectivity, with the second highest bandwidth in sub-Saharan Africa (second only to South Africa) as a few of the major international data cables land in Senegal. And yet, relatively few Senegalese are online -- and again, the question is why?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 28 Nov 11 16:51
You talk about the differences in these four countries and their approaches to the Internet. Did they have anything in common?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Mon 28 Nov 11 22:15
Well, they're common in that they represent disparate points along this Internet connectivity spectrum. You could apply my same rubric to any country -- but I chose these four because I feel that they're amongst the most interesting, and under-reported countries with respect to discussions of the Internet. We hear a lot about China, for example, which is why I chose to leave it out of my book.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 29 Nov 11 05:59
One thing I noted in common is a very interesting set of evangelists for the Internet whose actions drive its adoption. How did you find the early adopters you write about - did you know some of them already, or did you find them through research?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Tue 29 Nov 11 10:10
Hi Cyrus I read the introduction to your book to get an idea about what it is about and will be reading along with the discussion. I'd like to put aside the technical aspects of your story and ask a couple of cultural questions. But first let me give you a little background to set my question in context. I have a friend who was an English instructor in Iran for Bell Helli copter in the early 70's so the Shah was in power and there was a cozy relationship between the US and the Iranian military then. Here he was teaching English to guys who would eventually operate, fix, and maintain these machines. He told me that he was really struck by the, for want of a better term, cultural lag of his students. He described them as having very traditional worldviews with a thin veneer of modern technology and understanding of the modern Western world. They could fix an engine, drive a truck, or fly a copter, but had very little understanding about life outside of their villages. When the revolution came later in the decade he commented that given that dynamic, he could have predicted the religious millenarian response that happened. Also in the early 70's I was doing anthropology research in France and Tunisia with Algerian and Tunisian peasants who came to France to work and then returned home to their villages. Let's just say that there was a continuum of assimilation from wide-eyed greenhorn country bumpkin to highly educated with a good grasp of western culture( but no possibility for a job at home). I established close friendships so these guys felt they could ask me about American culture. Tell me the truth ok. Level with me now. Their questions were mostly about popular culture that they saw on TV or in the movies. Were there really gangsters in Chicago with submachine guns? Did I have a horse at home? Was everyone rich and did they all drive Cadillacs? Since this was 2 or 3 years after the moon shot, the question that got me the most was did they really go to the moon. Since your book is about communication technology and how it is adapted and integrated, how many generations do you think have to go by before you blow off the cognitive dissonance between the traditional cultures and the technology?
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 29 Nov 11 12:26
(Just a quick reference to elsewhere, or else-well as the case may be. Please tell your Not On The WELL pals they can see this conversation from anyplace by using this: http://tinyurl.com/inkwell-farivar )
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Tue 29 Nov 11 13:11
Jon: Some of the characters I knew (Amadou Top, for example). Omid, though, I was introduced to as a possible subject for the book. Chon Kilnam I found literally by Googling "father of the Korean Internet" and digging around. Veljo I found as someone who was active in the Estonian WiFi scene -- and when I planned my first trip to Estonia in March 2005, he invited me to stay with him and we became fast friends. In fact, the first time I went, he happily drove me all over the country. (http://bit.ly/t2fgbW) David: I'm not sure what you mean here. I think there are lots of traditional cultures that use modern technology and I don't think that they're inherently incompatible. Take Senegal and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, for example. According to the ITU (http://bit.ly/rpiO0C) half of Africans have a mobile phone. That means pretty much everyone either has one, or knows someone that does. That's pretty amazing. I think, though, that it takes time before a country like Senegal can reach the level of Internet connectivity of a place like South Korea. I think that takes proper planning and education to fully reach the Internet's potential.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 29 Nov 11 14:36
Loved your parallel with the development of the telegraph and ensuing tecno-cultural incorporation as it relates to the negative implications of digital pervasiveness today. Could you riff a bit on the more hopeful aspects of this?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 29 Nov 11 17:58
Also this may be the right moment to talk about prerequisites for widespread Internet adoption, e.g. literacy. It seemed pretty clear that Senegal's lag compared to the other three countries was because of the country's comparative low levels of literacy.
Lee Felsenstein (lee) Tue 29 Nov 11 21:40
Hi, Cyrus! Hi, Jon! I made it! For everybody else, a word of introduction may be required. I'm an old-timer in personal computers (1974) and will modestly take credit for creating the display architecture (how the display hardware interacts with the rest of it)of the PC. I designed the Osborne-1 (the first commercially successful "portable" or "luggable" computer - 1981) and have always considered myself a "technological adventurer". One of my latest adventures and the one most relevant to this discussion was the "remote village IT system" implemented through the "Jhai PC" (2003) (see <http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2006/10/what_is_the_jha.html> for details - the link to the Jhai Foundation page is inoperative). Designed to use WiFi links of multiple kilometers, VOIP software running on open-source software and embedded computer hardware, it was created in response to the Lao villagers' request through the Jhai Foundation for telecommunications capability for their group of refugee villages. Internet usage through browsers was always a secondary functionality, given the specific requirements. Local usage in support of a village construction business (spreadsheets, WP, report printing) was considered more important. Email would enable a kind of telegraph service among the villages. Literacy would depend upon the village children, all of whom are literate (the system was located under control of the village primary/middle school by decision of the villagers). While the system ran into internal political barriers (denied permission to use military-controlled land for the relay station), the development of successor systems has continued both by the Jhai Foundation <www.jhai.org> and by Inveneo <www.inveneo.org>, a nonprofit formed by members of the followup development team. It's interesting to note that Senegal provided a proof-of-concept that was crucial in the design of the JhaiPC. I learned of a text-message service there opened in 1984 using mobile phones that allowed farmers to obtain daily price information and thereby plan their marketing strategy. What was observed was an increase in the farmers' incomes while the middlemen who had previously profited from the farmers' price ignorance moved up the food chain. The basic point here is that mere provision of Internet services may not be adequate to justify the cost of implementing a system in poor areas. On the other hand, the provision of defined services whose function aids the economic viability of local communities will justify the costs. Much of these costs can be handled by members of the community in diaspora - this was the path through which the Jhai Foundation formed and began working with the villages in question. OK, enough for now. I've more to say, but it would be best to have it turn up as the conversation goes there.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 30 Nov 11 10:42
Welcome, Lee, so glad you could join us!
Angus MacDonald (angus) Wed 30 Nov 11 13:56
I'm very interested to read the parts about Estonia; I spent a weekend in Tallinn in 1982, and I understand things have changed.
Frako Loden (frako) Wed 30 Nov 11 14:16
I'm looking forward to hearing why, Cyrus, you think Japanese Internet usage lags so far behind Korea's when so much about Korean culture and ideology has emulated Japan.
for dixie southern iraq (stet) Wed 30 Nov 11 14:37
does it have to do with Hangul being much more user-friendly than Japanese writing?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Wed 30 Nov 11 15:19
Jon: Yes! I think that literacy is something that gets overlooked a lot. In Senegal, 60% of the country is illiterate, which means over half the country, automatically, will have a hard time using the Internet. As much as we love cute cat videos, the Internet that we all know and love is primarily a text-based medium. Ted: The hopeful aspects of technology? There are lots. I think we all benefit from cheaper, faster and more instantaneous communications technology -- both from a personal level and from a professional level. First off, I'm writing to you right now from Kosovo, where Internet penetration is rising fast. (It's around 60 percent right now.) There are Western European companies setting up shop here -- to do outsourcing and the like -- as a cheaper alternative to Germany/Netherlands/etc. I'm sure that this does and will continue to help grow the local economy as Kosovo comes out from the legacy of occupation/war and grows into its newfound independence. I'm here this weekend, in fact, for the Startup Weekend Prishtina, the first-ever such competition in Kosovo, where entrepeneurs will present new ideas for startups. Who knows, perhaps the next Skype will come from here? Lee: Thanks for joining, and for all your good work with Jhai. Angus: Given that I was born in 1982, I couldn't tell you exactly how it was at that time, but yes, I would imagine it's changed a lot. In the last six years, since the first time I was there, it's definitely changed! Frako: I'm not an expert on the Japanese Internet, but I do know that there were some bureaucratic holdups in terms of creating the first independent ISPs that Korea essentially decided to circumvent. I think that one of the reasons perhaps that Japan lags behind is that it has over double the population and significantly more land area that Korea does. One of its advantages that Korea has is a high concentration of broadband is the density and high prevalence of cities and high-rise buildings which facilitate the spread of broadband.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 30 Nov 11 19:25
Chon Kilnam was a real Internet pioneer, yet he's not well known in the U.S. Does he have visibility in Korea? Are people aware of his impact on Internet availability and adoption there?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Fri 2 Dec 11 15:09
Jon: To be honest, I'm not sure how well-known Chon is even inside of Korea, amongst your average Koreans. He's a pretty humble guy to begin with. I think he's pretty well-known within the Korean Internet community (particularly amongst his alumni, who now run much of the local industry), and also internationally (he recently won an award from ISOC - http://bit.ly/rwoRo9) in some circles. But then again, even the likes of Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee I don't think are known amongst the general public.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Dec 11 15:54
You're probably right about that, a very low-key bunch of wizards. Are Koreans taking their connectivity "like running water" pretty much for granted now? How is it shaping their culture? Aside from the StarCraft tournaments you mention in the book, that is.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 3 Dec 11 02:04
You make some great 'meta' points in your book Cyrus...one of them dispels the utopian notion that the tech and digital revolutions are moving us to a glorious future where global collaboration will resolve all our problems. One of the impediments here is the relationship to basic literacy and digital literacy. Your histories of Estonia and South Korea demonstrate their success directly to that relationship. While Iran, given State interference, has a young educated class constantly pushed to find work-arounds. And Senegal has to start from the bottom. Parallel to this you make a great case for how differently cultures accept and adapt to the Internet. It is not monolithic. Along with this utopian notion is a sense that some kind of world digital culture will emerge with a new global consciousness and all will be well. My immediate take away was that it is nowhere near so mystical and that we have a long time of integration and education to take place before any "world culture" or "group mind" takes place, if at all. Is that a fair recap? And would you please speak to that?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Sat 3 Dec 11 07:59
Jon: I think Koreans do take their connectivity somewhat for granted. It's just a feature of modern Korea now. Similarly, I think Estonians assume that WiFi is free everywhere. ("What do you mean I have to pay for WiFi?") I think that it shapes the culture in many good and bad ways that I discuss in the book, like a vibrant tech community, gaming and its own unique social networking. Ted: I think your interpretation is spot on. I don't know that the Internet is an inherent force for good that is deterministic -- eg, it may not necessarily be an automatically good thing that more Internet is coming to China. Higher Internet usage does not equal more democracy, necessarily. That being said, I think that there is a certain Internet-savvy, English-speaking community of people that can and have found each other online in an entirely new way. This is amplified through social media, of course, but also through organizations like Pecha Kucha, Global Voices (globalvoicesonline.org), Startup Weekend and many others. I think the fact that I can easily find even a small handful of like-minded, under-30, English-speaking geeks online in practically any corner of the world speaks to this sub-group that is starting to form. Is that a fair recap? And would you please speak to that?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Sat 3 Dec 11 08:00
Sorry, ignore that last sentence. ("Is that a fair recap? And would you please speak to that?") I copied/pasted for my own reference.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 3 Dec 11 10:09
I should also take this opportunity to remind people not on the Well that you can send in questions for Cyrus to email@example.com and we'll post 'em as soon as we can -- sometimes immediately.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 4 Dec 11 07:00
Cyrus, your comment makes me think about the early days of the Internet, before mainstreaming. We could see that there was a potential community forming - geeks of a particular mindset that guided them to the Internet, where they became early adopters and started to connecting with each other and evolving communities. The surge in participation here on the WELL after it connected to the Internet (around 1990) was a good example. Mainstreaming of the Internet, especially high adoption by marketing entities and sales-focused individuals, has meant substantial noise and distraction in the cyberspace environment - quite noticeable in the U.S. Communities and conversations seem more fragmented, more conversation is "drive by" as on Twitter and Facebook. Wondering how this is playing out globally, in th parts of the world where you've focused? How well can like-minded people find each other in Korea, Estonia, Iran, and Senegal, for instance? Where are they hanging out, what kinds of conversations do they value?
Cyrus Farivar (cjfarivar) Sun 4 Dec 11 13:33
Jon: Your point is well taken. I think that like-minded people find each other in my four countries just like they find each other anywhere else -- whether online or offline. That is, through Facebook groups, blogs, community sites, friends and family. I think though, that each language has it's main online forums. In Korea, that's usually Cyworld (although that may be supplanted by Facebook these days), and Senegal sites like seneweb.com, and Iran sites like Balatarin.com (similar to Digg), and Estonia -- honestly I'm not sure that there's a dedicated Estonian hangout. I think that in a place like Iran, where speech is so restricted domestically, that Iranians you find online speaking out from my impression, would be members of the diaspora. (That said, I have no way to actually prove this.)
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