In today's consumer-driven world, technological advancements and breakthroughs are often - if not usually - motivated by commercial use: the i-anything, endless mobile applications, faster internet speeds for gaming or video uploads, social networking, etc. The list is constantly growing.
But more importantly - yet often secondarily - these innovations enable important abilities that have the power to dramatically affect and change our lives.
Last month we witnessed a landmark event when internet accessibility and social networking played a primary role in Egypt's political revolution. Citizens opposed to the standing government coordinated their protests and recruited demonstrators online. As one activist tweeted during the protests, "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world." This remarkable series of events reminds us how these recent social applications - created and adopted for superficial purposes - carry the power to profoundly impact our world.
When the first printing press was invented, a world of knowledge and information-sharing was created in a scope that could never before have existed. Radio technology enabled communication across great distances that previously could have only been dreamed about. The same technology that brought television entertainment into people's homes allowed a nation to view a presidential debate for the first time, which has been said to have potentially influenced the outcome of the subsequent election. Decades later, many of us watched in real time as the twin towers fell in New York in 2001.
The prevalence of mobile phones has allowed colleges and universities across the country to implement emergency notification systems to instantly reach students and faculty through mass text messaging. A technology students carry to keep in constant contact with friends now has the potential to one day save their lives. Advancements in location-based technologies have spurred an influx of consumer products from athletic equipment to automobile navigation units, but it is this same technology that allows emergency responders to pinpoint a distressed caller's location and families to keep track of their young children or elderly relatives.
These technologies and capabilities are not without their roadblocks, however, and they're not equally accessible to all. As Egyptian protestors were coordinating their efforts online, the Egyptian government took the dramatic action of essentially pulling the plug on the country's internet infrastructure, as opponents at war might cut off the other's supply chain. In China, where government-critical online posts are usually erased within minutes, censorship is so extensive that the size of their Internet police is estimated at more than 50,000. These collective actions amount to the virtual burning of books or news regulation. And currently in Libya, four weeks of regime and opposition fighting has become a civil war, with internet blackouts bringing the country's online traffic to a near flatline.
Even in the United States, lawmakers and industry stakeholders are embroiled in the debate over net neutrality - the idea that all information on the internet should be given the same level of accessibility, unrestricted by various internet service providers. The issue persists as a clash of capitalism and freedom of information that remains unresolved. And last week during pro-union protests in Wisconsin's capitol, Governor Scott Walker had internet accessibility blocked to inhibit communication access for demonstrators, a move many called a violation of First Amendment rights.
Less intrusive than censorship but still largely damaging to accessibility are the technology-induced hurdles of identity theft and online security. Still, in many parts of the world, communications access is nearly non-existent as well as non-essential, where entire populations face more immediate and urgent issues such as hunger and poverty. Known as the Global Digital Divide, the continent of Africa reports drastically lower numbers of computer and internet users than the rest of the world.
It is important to recognize the significance of communications technologies and the capabilities they enable. The challenges that inhibit equal access are issues that will affect us all in one way or another. As companies and individuals progress in innovating new advancements, we must not forget the need to also advance in overcoming the accessibility challenges that are sure to follow.