ITU Youth Forum, Special Interactive Plenary - Some starting thoughts from Richard Li
6 December 2006, ITU Youth Forum, Hong Kong
- Welcome everyone. I've been greatly looking
forward to this session..
- First, let me put up a big "health warning"
disclaimer: I have not seen the future, and you will
probably get to grips with it sooner than I.
- But having got that very humbling health warning
out of the way, let me pose some issues, and then leave
our Q&A session to wrestle with the implications
in what is likely to be a truly revolutionary few decades
- Back in the late 1960s a guy called Thomas
Kuhn wrote a now-famous book called "The Structure
of Scientific Revolutions". Going back through
the centuries he tracked how again and again, scientific
revolutionaries from Galileo to Newton to Einstein were
resisted and rejected by people around them engaged
in what he calls "normal science". Many had
long died before the truth of their discoveries was
accepted, and the implications taken on board.
- For all of you here today, most of you I think
in your early 20s, the truly fundamental nature of the
computer-based revolution, and the internet revolution
based on it, may be hard to grasp: all of your conscious
lives, you have been able to take the internet as a
given, and so probably underestimate the truly revolutionary
nature of its arrival, and how barely its implications
have worked their way through our societies.
- It was only in 1990 - just 16 years ago -
that ARPANET - the modest computer network set up between
a handful of US universities and research departments
- became the internet.
- In 1986, when many of you were in daipers,
a journalist then covering the ITU would have had to
sit at a telex machine punching out his report on a
long strip of paper tape before feeding the tape manually
back into the telex for transmission. Back in their
offices, many would type their news reports on three-ply
paper for manual editing by subeditors and editors.
Computer terminals cost US$10,000 a time - no exaggeration
- and mobile phones were not even a glint in anyone's
- Life has been totally changed. While the technology
is sweeping us forward, the social and psychological
institutions that anchor our lives in societies around
the world are struggling to keep up and to cope with
- Computers that have greatly speeded our work
efficiency are accused of damaging our literacy.
- An internet that has given us vastly enhanced
access to information around the world has also helped
criminal gangs to operate more effectively, and given
youngsters access to pornography and worse that is creating
anxieties in many societies around the world.
- School teachers are reporting that rising
numbers of five-year-olds are starting school without
basic language and talking skills: with much of their
learning coming from computer screens, they have lacked
the to-and-fro with parents that apparently underpins
most of our early language learning.
- Social workers are reporting rising numbers
of teenagers that lack the confidence or capability
to interact with other people face to face because they
have become so reliant on communicating across the ether.
- Governments that until a decade ago had effective
control over their own populations are learning that
the globally anarchic structure of the internet is threatening
- This is generating a fundamental clash between
those who relish the idea of a "bottom up, virally
grown and innovative internet" and those concerned
about command, control, and social stability.
- And when you see some of the numbers, you
can perhaps understand why: Chinese companies are today
making 400 million mobile phones a year; we now have
2.5 billion people with mobile subscriptions around
the world, with 40 million being added every month;
even in Africa, which originally lagged many other parts
of the world, mobile phone ownership has risen from
10 million in 2001 to 170 million this year.
- This is a technological firestorm of previously unimaginable
proportions that is fundamentally challenging ideas of
geography, nationality and distance.
- Some governments are full of anxieties that many of
the intrinsically American foundations of the internet
are subversively engineering US control of their societies.
- Groups thrilled by the freedoms made possible by the
internet are at the same time worried about the intrusions
- As a professional working in the industry, I can assure
you it is nerve-racking: companies are investing billions
in 3G mobile networks only to discover a year later that
3G is being transcended by wholly new technologies.
- Even more nerve-racking, going back to Thomas Kuhn's
"Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is that
the changes that have turned our worlds upside down in
the last 30 years are all derivative of a revolution that
occurred back in the first half of the 20th century: they
are all derivative "normal science" in Kuhn's
- So let me leave you with some questions:
- Is the internet going to make the idea of national
- Is the digital divide going to create global political
challenges in the future?
- What role do rules have in something so essentially
anarchic as the internet: in short, should we be editing
content in Wikepedia or not?
- One famous sociologist once said that "To live
alone, a man must be a God or a beast". Is the
social isolation made possible by the internet making
some of us think we are Gods, but at the same time
making us beasts?
- Would any of you take a stab at what that next big
new idea will be?
- And perhaps one final very basic question: given
the ubiquity of computers and internet based communication,
how vulnerable are we if the lights go out - not a
trite question given the number of massive power disruptions
we have seen around the world in the past few years?
- So, for what they are worth, a few thoughts from a
dinosaur. Thank you all for coming.