Joichi Ito: Arab Unrest Altered Social Media

Joichi Ito recently shared his vision of social media with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, weighing in on how traditional media is making use of social media, the implications of new broadcasting techniques for governments in the region, and the development of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region. 

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You came to live in the Arab world to learn and understand its culture. What lessons are you taking away from your time here?

Joichi Ito: I am not leaving, first of all. I'm going to keep my place here. The MIT media lab is an international institution and it has to become even more international. I'm going to try to set up a regional presence here. The Middle East is going to continue to get a lot of my attention. I'm trying to learn, trying to understand the culture and also trying to make relationships here.

When I first came, I really didn't understand anything. Everything seemed like chaos. And now, I can see a little bit of order and I can usually guess who's the Egyptian and who's a Libyan and who's the Lebanese guy. So I'm starting to understand the relationships between the different Arab countries and also some of the basic things about how stuff is done here. But I still don't know that much. For me, it's a ten-year project to get to know this region better both culturally and business-wise.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Have you had a chance to reflect on the current unrest in the region?

Ito: I tend to be more on the activist side. I have written about emergent democracy, and about how I think technology will change democracy. I think this time really is an important step in the future for media and the future of relationships between new media and governments. I think it's also a key period for the region, and it's interesting to see how much the Internet is playing a role. I know people who are on one side of the argument and I know people who are on the other side. I'm sure everyone knows people on both sides, so it's kind of interesting to listen to the establishment talking, as well as the students.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Considering the way people have organized through social media, and some of the responses by the authorities, would you call the unrest a technological innovation?

Ito: It's a trend that's been going on for a while. Howard Dean used social media. Obama has used it. I think it was a very important application of this technology and it changed the image of the technology. It worked in many ways that we have hoped it would work, so I'm not sure I would use the word 'innovation' because I think they used it in the way that it should be used. There was some innovation going on, but it's more that people have been talking about how social media could play a strong role. This is I think the first time that it had such a strong and important impact on events. The role of media was somewhat sort of revolutionary in scale, but eventually, I would call it an innovation.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: There was a media forum in Dubai recently, and Sultan Al Qassemi (a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government and a frequent commentator on Arab affairs) said he wasn't sure that the social media actually played such a big role in the unrest. What's your response?

Ito: The way that the foreign media looked at the unrest was influenced a great deal by social media. If you talk to Al Jazeera, they'd tell you that they used social media a great deal. Maybe we shouldn't overstate it; a lot of the coverage was from the cameraman on the ground. Much of it was people doing things on the ground, and good old-fashioned activism. Al Jazeera probably played a bigger role. But there was definitely a lot of stuff on Twitter, a lot of information being shared. Even if it was just metaphorical, much of the rallying had to do with what was going on social media. Fundamentally, it's about people having courage, right? If the people believed it was social media giving them courage, then it was, right?

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In the past, a government would shut down the TV station during a revolution. Now it seems the first step is to shut down cell towers to block information. Have we entered a different phase of controlling communication?

Ito: If I'm a dictator, I still want to control TV, right? But now, there's a lot of work being done in mesh networks. (An inexpensive wireless network using a series of small radio transmitters.) Even in some rural areas, they're using mesh networks. So I think I could very easily see mesh networks being deployed very quickly once the sub-power and the Internet goes out. It will be an arms race where activists will build ad hoc infrastructure, and governments will come out with different ways to shut it down, and it will resume back and forth.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What is the potential for technological innovation in the Arab region, and what needs to happen to further that growth?

Ito: There's a lot of energy and some good and raw computer science power. If you would go all the way to India, there are a lot of developers and a lot of resources. But the open source community isn't as developed, since you don't have the same level of angel funding and so on. A lot of the social entrepreneurship comes from interactions with the startup community. Whether you're successful or you're a failure, if you've done a couple of tech startups, you get a certain level of agility, you know, a 'get-this-stuff-done' kind of attitude. And I think that they're developing that in the streets, as it's really resource constrained, but we need to get things going.

There isn't as much community discussion about best practices. In Silicon Valley, if you go Cupertino, if you go to this one place, people sit around and talk all day about agile development and uplink startups and people working on Ruby On Rails (a web development framework). I find it startling that people here are still using dot-net Microsoft… So the tools that they use in the open, or rather the lack of open source, the lack of content… I think there's a lot happening but it's still relatively at the early stage. That's why I'm actually interested in the region, because it's boring to go somewhere that's not developing.

I see a lot of potential, because the people who do come out and get excited, they are a very young population. There are a lot of bright people and there still so much to do. You also have people who are investing and coming back to the region. But the thing about mastery is, whether it's mastery of startups, mastery of angel investing, mastery of agile development, it's not easy. It takes a little while before you get really good at it. There aren't as many masters and the problem is in order to teach, you have to teach each other. So there needs to be a critical mass before the overall quality increases, essentially.

Read the rest of the article on Arabic Knowledge@Wharton.


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