Was President Barack Obama's State of the Union message overshadowed because Apple unveiled its iPad tablet computer the same day?
The idea of a product rollout trumping the president's annual speech to Congress does seem funny. But it's the way the world is going: Technology, as a driver of social change, is overtaking politics.
Look around the globe. One of every three people in China now uses the Internet. The same is true in Iran. Hundreds of millions of users are on Facebook, often communicating across borders. Four billion people now have mobile phones. India has nearly 400 million. In the United States, the number of text messages sent each month has passed 100 billion.
Gadgets have swept the world before, but mobile computing devices are different. Through applications and upgrades, they can acquire new powers. Apple alone offers more than 100,000 apps and has delivered more than 2 billion downloads. Phones are becoming maps, TVs, libraries, shopping tools, video cameras, car keys, and credit cards.
In more and more places, machines are running the world. On stock exchanges, high-speed computers armed with trading algorithms and superior pattern recognition are thrashing human competitors. Airline autopilots have become so reliable that human pilots can check out. In cars, software is beginning to assume responsibility for steering, braking, and parking. Drones are patrolling our borders, catching humans who try to sneak in. Computers are telling child welfare agencies whether to take kids away from parents. Programs are running "virtual call centers," measuring the output of dispersed salespeople and routing customer phone calls to the best performers. Computers don't just work for us anymore. We work for them.
Thanks to connectivity and mobile devices, terrorists can do more harm. A year ago, terrorists slaughtered scores of people in Mumbai with the help of BlackBerrys, satellite phones, GPS, aerial image files, and voice-over-Internet-protocol. But networked devices also help us thwart such plots. In Pakistan, remote-controlled CIA drones hunt al-Qaida and Taliban commanders. U.S. military strategists are laying contingency plans for cyberwar. There's even an iPhone app being developed to help soldiers monitor enemy positions.
Networks also multiply our power to help each other. Through the Internet, African entrepreneurs are obtaining microcredit loans. Doctors in India are diagnosing patients in Ethiopia. In the week after Haiti's earthquake, a campaign for $10 text-message donations to the Red Cross raised $25 million. That's 2.5 million responses.
Over the long term, politics can't compete with technology's power. Look at Obama's latest proposals to make college more affordable. They're a pittance compared with the cost-cutting force of online education. Millions of Americans are taking college courses through the Internet for $200 per credit or less. MIT, the Princeton Review, and other heavyweights are extending this option to more people here and abroad.
Politics can harness technology and sometimes influence it. Obama owes his election in part to digital micro- targeting, online network-building, and a list of 13 million e-mail addresses. But more often, technology overwhelms politics. Around the world, information networks are shaking the foundations of authoritarian regimes. In Iran, cell phone cameras have exposed state brutality, and e-mail chains have relayed incriminating videos out of the country. In Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, tweets and text messages have mobilized mass protests.
Governments are trying hard to control this technology. The most aggressive censors, China and Iran, use filtering software to monitor Web content and block sites they don't like. But through downloads, e-mails, and instant messages, troublemakers abroad continue to supply Chinese and Iranian citizens with software that lets them sneak out. By routing their queries and messages through foreign proxy servers, these citizens can see and communicate with the outside world. Their bodies are trapped inside their nations' firewalls, but their minds roam free.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced Internet censorship around the world as an "information curtain" akin to the Iron Curtain of the Soviet era. She championed the "freedom to connect" — an updated, online version of freedom of assembly. And she outlined a place for politics in the march of information technology. "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress," she observed. "But the United States does. We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."
That's a pretty good manifesto for the next century. We don't have to be bigger than tomorrow's machines. We just have to teach them and their users to play well with others.