While technology may not have sparked the fire in the Middle East, it has helped people pressure their governments to reform.
Parag Khanna: Welcome to the Global Roundtable. This series focuses on the Future of Economic Competition. I’m Parang Khanna, joined by a distinguished panel including: Dambisa Moyo, Daniel Altman and Anand Giridharadas. Today we’re going to be talking about the political power of youth and social media. Obviously, we’re focusing very much on the Middle East where there’s been a tremendous amount of upheaval largely driving by youth, by technology, the Al Jazeera affect, whatever the case may be, across the entire Arab world, but different in each case. And we need to figure out how this is going to play out, but we’re sitting and watching bystanders like everyone else, but what, what can you say, what we say about where this is going to go?
Anand Giridharadas: I think it’s been fascinating to watch what’s happened there and some of the debate about technology that we’ve had in the west relating to it. And I think there’s been a lot of kind of vitriolic commentary saying this… these revolutions are entirely caused by Facebook and Twitter on the one hand, and people who have said they’ve played no role. I think a kind of middle truth is emerging where something very interesting is happening about… and it’s not just the power to Tweet to bring down a government. But the inability of people to keep out… the governments to keep out information. You can’t just shut off the TV, you can shut off the internet, but then Google invents a system where you can use voice mail to Tweet. The inability of governments to totally shut themselves out is likely to become a more and more potent force.
Parag Khanna: So is technology though going to lead to better policy, better economic policy to democracy?
Daniel Altman: Well, technology can be democratizing by itself. And I don’t think we should just talk about the teenage and 20-year-old tweeters. We should talk about the 30-year-old and the 40-year-old tweeters too because they’re the ones that lack the economic opportunities that they thought they deserved based on their skills and education in these regimes. If the new regimes are much more meritocratic, it will be an effect the fact that these 30 and 40-year-old tweeters were the ones who put them in power.
Parag Khanna: I would argue that a lot of these countries are going to be better off despite the uncertainty that we’re facing today precisely because of the fact that even as they fumble and stumble through economic reforms, the amount of attention that’s going to be on them because of media, because of technology, because youth can go out in the streets, is going to be incredibly intense. They’re not going to have this long window of opportunity to talk and say the nice things about how they plan to reform, but then not actually do it. The pressure will be on it and technology plays a tremendous role in keeping that pressure on them to reform.
Anand Giridharadas: I think that’s, that’s right, but the history of this is that always these very beautiful revolutionary moments and some of them go very well after that and some of them don’t. I think what is, just to Dambisa’s point, I think what is genuinely novel about this, although **** does have good points about how technology can go both ways, is that North Koreas are probably not going to be possible anymore for anybody, besides North Korea. The idea of a country that is just totally off the grid where people in that country have no idea what’s happening in any other country is probably I think, a thing of the past.
Daniel Altman: But there’s a problem with the opposite extreme too. If you look at a country like East Timor that came into all of this oil wealth and said we’re going to handle it totally transparently, any citizen can check our bank balances, then the citizens start saying, “Hey, I can see your bank balance, how come I don’t have a job yet?” Right? Because when that information is available, people do want you to act on it immediately and sometimes those expectations are unrealistic.
Dambisa Moyo: And I think that’s really the most interesting thing about this whole debate. I think there’s way too much of an obsession about this being a pure pro-democracy issue. I think the fundamental point is about economic. I think if you can get economics right, **** hierarchy of needs, people want to see opportunities, they want jobs, they want food on their table, they want their kids to have a better life than they do. If you can deliver that, you probably won’t have the volatilities that we see in the Middle East.
Parag Khanna: I think Generation Y that is leading these revolutions and using technology really wants accountability first and if there is democracy that comes with that, that’s obviously also a very good thing. But we do agree that the young generation is going to be shaping the future of these societies and most certainly they’re economies, which is why what’s happening with youth and technology is so important for the future of the economic competition. More on that and other relevant topics at BigThink.com.