Like a lot of others, I have been transfixed by the short and comparatively peaceful revolutionary events in Egypt. Like a lot of others, I am now watching reports about similar demonstrations Algeria and Yemen. I have been reminded of a prediction by my computing mentor David Rorabaugh, who—back in the days of Windows 3.1—had predicted whole online communities communicating with each other around common concerns and interests. Dave was right. An attempted Soviet coup in 1991 had failed in part because of the role that the Internet had played in communicating the truth of what was happening.
And Dave is right about another observation he made recently, namely how the Internet supports democratization by by shining a light on those who try to shut down that most precious gift of communication around the globe. His perspective on the history of revolution: “There was an actual wave of that in eastern Europe as the [Berlin] wall fell [in November 1989]. Backpackers with telco wireless gear lighting up unrest across Albania, among other places. Between then and now, the infrastructure has advanced to the point that guerrilla networking is only necessary when the government attempts to interfere. ”
Wael Ghonim—the Google executive who was held by Egyptian authorities for almost two weeks during the protests in Egypt—coordinated activities from within his walk-up apartment. In his 60 Minutes interview, he thanked the Mubarak government for being “so stupid.” In a word, so naive. That naiveté, when combined with fear of transparency, brought down the Mubarek government.
I am left thinking about Nikhil Sheth, a far less-known friend in India who is working to bring about a different kind of revolution. Ever since its founding in 1924, Toastmasters International—an organization of about 12,500 clubs and more than 260,000 members in 113 countries—has insisted upon recognizing only those meetings which are conducted face to face. Nikhil is a Toastmaster who understands the role of technology to advance communication beyond the borders of local traditional Toastmasters International club meetings. Recognizing that many professionals today need to learn teleconference skills and group communication skills over the Internet, Nikhil and an enthusiastic group are planning a pilot Internet meeting later this month. He is advocating for technology—the very course that my mentor David Rorabaugh counseled years ago.
A small group of Toastmasters meeting over the Internet will hardly have the same impact as the events of 1989, 1991 or Egypt in February 2011. But it is a start.