Sunday, January 30, 2011

Political Turmoil and the Internet in Africa

On December 17, a young Tunisian college grad, frustrated by his inability to find a job and the harassment he received from the police, publicly set himself on fire and, in effect, set off an explosive chain of events that would change the political landscape of his country forever. In just the last few months, there has been an unprecedented surge in the continent's political instability. The dictator of Tunisia has been ousted; the former president of Cote d'Ivoire hanging onto his post despite calls from a united international community to step down, and the most recent anti-government riots in Egypt calling for the resignation of the country's leader. Technology has played an pivotal role in each of these situations, whether by its innovative use, as a tool for governmental oppression, or by its notable absence. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Atop the Great Firewall of China

When I was in Shanghai last month, one of the first things to hit me was just how prevalent Internet censorship is in China. Dubbed the Great Firewall, China's Internet restriction policies are widespread and, arguably, the most extensive in the world. In fact, one of the main reasons there were no new blog posts from that period was because Blogger is blocked. For that matter, so is Facebook, Twitter, and a whole host of other commonly used online tools. Speaking of Facebook, someone from my old team there created a stunning data visualization of Facebook friendships around the world that illustrate the Great Firewall quite well.

As many commentators have pointed out, there's an awfully glaring hole in this world map: China's nowhere to be seen. In addition to general censorship of the Internet, China also employs a small army of "Internet police", rumored to number over 50,000, who "guide discussion" in online forums, or to put it more bluntly, disseminate propaganda. The government also monitors the Internet activity of individual citizens, specifically ones suspected of dissidence. To this point, Amnesty International points out that China has actually imprisoned more journalists and cyber-dissidents than any other country in the world. As an American, I have to admit it was quite jarring to all of a sudden not have the same liberties that I've grown up with. I wonder how the actual inhabitants of the country come to deal with the restrictions or if they even have an impact on people's day to day lives. Perhaps I'll just have to go back to find out for myself...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Year in Review: A Look Back at 2010

365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, one year. To think, if it weren't for a few natural laws, these numbers would be nothing more than that, just numbers. And yet, we each use these constants to measure the progress of our lives. How much have we grown in the past year? How much have our lives changed? In a way, I'm grateful for this cyclic nature of life -- it forces us at certain intervals to step and reflect.

Growing up, my plans for the future only ever went up to the year 2010, and even that always seemed impossibly far away. 2010: The year I would graduate college, the year I would enter this "real world" I had heard so much about, the year I would be forced to be independent, and in many ways, the year I would have to say goodbye to those last vestiges of childhood. Sounds kind of terrifying, doesn't it? Well it was. 2010 was a year of many emotions: fear, yes, but also love, wonder, happiness, anxiety, and so many others.

Just before January 1 of last year, I found a present for myself in a random bookstore in New York. It was a five-year journal. Each page is assigned a day of the year, and seven lines of each page is allotted to each of the five years. (Complete the first seven lines on each page in your first year, start from the beginning going through the second seven lines, and so on.) I knew that the year ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life, and so I've been very persistent at keeping up with it, bringing it with me everywhere I travel, and even defying the laws of my personal nature by not losing it. It chronicles a number of monumental experiences that this last year has encompassed: exploring eastern Europe with Robyn, living atop a bookstore in Paris, visiting friends in the UK, spring break in Cancun, my final semester at Cornell, senior week and graduation, backpacking through Europe yet again, starting a new job, moving to Africa, and traveling the world over. I did the calculation the other day, and in one year, I've managed to spend time in 20 countries spanning 4 continents. During my travels in Asia, I heard an old Chinese proverb that seemed to relate particularly well to this past year. Roughly translated, it says "to go 1,000 miles is to have read 10,000 books". In that case, I've done pretty well for myself this year.

Here are some of my most memorable entries from 2010: