If anyone foresaw the technologically enabled political tsunami dubbed that Arab spring, it was Jared Cohen, now head of Google's think tank Google Ideas, and previously of the U.S. state department.
In 2004 he witnessed strange crowds of silent young people assembled in the marketplace of the city of Shiraz in southern Iran. They were studiously ignoring one another and intent on their cell phones. Cohen soon found out that they had assembled in an attempt to reinvent the Internet in a place where Internet use was seriously limited by the government. The crowd were using short range Bluetooth connections to communicate with strangers in ways that in other places would involve the Web: searching for a bassist for a band, promoting club nights or selling personal goods. When Cohen asked members of this peer-to-peer human Web if they were worried about being caught, they laughed. No one over thirty understands this is even possible, they said.
That gave Cohen a moment of premonition about the fate of repressive governments in the middle east, he told the Techonomy conference in Tucson, Arizona, yesterday. "These people are using technology to do things they're not allowed to do," he said, "they're self training in activism and one day this will help them organize for something else that is illegal and that they're not allowed to do."
When he told colleagues at the State Department, no one was interested. It must have been very tempting for Cohen to say "I told you so" in 2009 when cell phones and the Internet facilitated protests in Iran after contentious elections, and in 2010 when more extensive, tech-enabled activism rewrote the political map for the whole region.