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How technology is changing the world, and allowing you to change it too

Men in traditional Maasai clothing using their mobile phones. Photo: <a href="">Mark Kelley (Flickr)</a>
Men in traditional Maasai clothing using their mobile phones. Photo: Mark Kelley (Flickr)

Envy Jared Cohen. At 29, the man has advised two U.S. presidents, shaped relations between countries, and now leads his own think-tank at Google. But his take on technology suggests you could do this, too.

Cohen, at a recent Mercy Corps-sponsored talk in Portland, OR, wowed the audience with personal anecdotes about how technology is changing international affairs. Cohen has seen firsthand the effects of communications technology and understands the potential it holds for the world’s future.

Cohen, a security expert, spent much of his talk describing the effects of communications progress on modern states and their rule of law. He spoke of technological literacy in Iranian youth that was instrumental in coordinating the June, 2009 Green Revolution. He spoke of an unemployed Colombian activist who used social media to coordinate the anti-FARC demonstration, the largest protest against a terrorist group in history.

"The 21st century," Cohen said, "is a really terrible time to be a control freak." But that applies whether you're trying to control peaceful demonstrators in Cairo or violent drug cartels in Mexico. Government control is proving ever more elusive as groups find out just how empowering technology can be.

Jared Cohen.
Jared Cohen.

He painted a picture of exponentially growing networks that are bringing people together from around the globe. This interconnectedness makes it difficult to control and contain groups that are finding ever more ways to use technology that is itself rapidly progressing. These groups tend to be made up of young people, as the empowering effect of these new forms of communication is most potent for those who understand how to use them.

Each of Cohen’s points seemed to return to a basic theme: technology is eroding the barriers to entry to all sorts of games, markets, and movements. And while technology is getting better, people, especially young people, are getting better at using it. Cohen argues that “those who don’t have information technology today will be the most active users tomorrow.” Ten years ago, 361 million people had access to the Internet. Today, that number has increased to 2.1 billion, with the fastest growth in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. “Pakistan, in the year 2000, had 300,000 mobile phones. By 2010, it had over 100 million. That's in a population of 165 million,” Cohen explained. Technological growth will have the biggest empowering effect on those who currently find themselves with the least power.

Cohen’s opinions on this topic have authority because of the life he's led and the movements he's witnessed. He’s travelled the world and met with leaders of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, democracies and autocracies. His own story is a case in point that technology is empowering those who know how to use it.

Technology, according to Cohen, is driving the changing tide of the times and youth tend to have an inherent advantage in understanding and deftly using these innovations. Cohen rode the wave of technology into the most exclusive circles in Washington. And he says we should all be using technology to find our own wave to ride.

Ben Osborn is a 2011 graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Read his other contributions to Global Envision.

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