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Maha Atal ’08: Around the world in a nanosecond: globalization, 2.0-style

Monday, March 10, 2008

There is an interesting new video on YouTube. In it, Aitzaz Ahsan P’06, the lawyer leading the resistance against President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, calls upon supporters to join him in a Black Flag protest. All this week, they should wear black clothes, bandanas and armbands and fly black cloths from their rooftops and car windows to demand the release of judges deposed and imprisoned by Musharraf’s government in the last six months, Ahsan says.

Such grassroots calls to action have been at the heart of the resistance movement. From the beginning, it has been ordinary Pakistanis – professionals and civil servants – who have taken to the streets to protest martial law and demand free elections. What makes this recent video unique is the call to those outside Pakistan: Ahsan speaks in Urdu but the clip has English subtitles. Moreover, he says, the purpose of the protest is to “show the world that from Khyber to Karachi, we are a conscious and enlightened nation and that we do not condone such grave crimes.”

It is old news that globalization makes the politics of one nation relevant to others. Our own primary season has been simulcast on news networks worldwide as everyone from Indians to Italians wants to know who will be the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Over winter break, visiting friends from my year abroad in Britain, I was amazed by their detailed knowledge of our primary and caucus system and the specific political preferences of each state.

But, I rationalized, the United States is a superpower whose elected leaders make decisions for the world. Few Americans, after all, watch foreign elections this closely. Indeed, it seemed the left-wing skeptics who call globalization a euphemism for American hegemony might be onto something. So might those – especially in the European Union – who say the flat world threatens to erode national institutions.

Examining Pakistani politics over the last few weeks debunked those assumptions. Pakistani-Americans, like my family, have been watching the protest movement closely. We have been sending funds, giving speeches, writing letters of support and securing the assistance of lawyers and politicians in the West. Hillary Clinton has granted direct interviews to Pakistani media outlets promising to reverse the Bush administration’s policy of unconditional military aid. Pakistan is thus a Third World country reaching out to a global audience to support and improve its national politics.

The resistance movement is also a textbook example of Web 2.0 politics. It’s a grass-roots effort: Ordinary citizens have faced off against the corrupt and brutal authorities. It’s a high-tech effort: Petitions have been e-mailed, leaders in New York and Karachi have made announcements over Web conferences and Pakistani journalists have gone online to escape the censors. Finally, on Feb. 18, I watched Pakistan’s elections – a triumph for the protest movement and a crushing defeat for Musharraf’s party – live online.

As with globalization, the conventional wisdom about the Internet is that it’s bad for national political institutions. Web 2.0 moves us to think outside group identities and connect with others on individual terms. It encourages us to reject institutions and authorities, to be our own filmmakers or encyclopedia writers. Even reading news at a computer is a solitary, sedentary activity, and members of Generation Y rarely have conversations face-to-face.

The gap between joining a political Facebook group and organizing a sit-in is wide. Look, for example, at the difficulty Barack Obama has in turning his phenomenal online support among young people into a presidential nomination. Brown Students for Obama has more than 300 official members, and the pro-Obama sentiment on campus suggests a larger unofficial base of support. Yet students made up a paltry 13 percent of voters in the Rhode Island Democratic primary last Tuesday.

What makes the Pakistani resistance movement so successful is the intersection of globalization and technology. Web 2.0 technologies may be bad for mobilizing the established political process. Globalization may efface the direct chains between citizens and their own government, especially when so many of a nation’s best and brightest emigrate for work. But together, Web 2.0 and globalization are a boon for Third World development. Where the established political process doesn’t function, Web 2.0 enables individuals to act as citizens of the world, reaching out for support, financial and moral, from individuals abroad. In the process, they fulfill their responsibility as citizens of Pakistan.

For a technology geek like myself, it’s an interesting case study for another reason. There’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum about technological advancement and social change: Do new devices simply help us fulfill our goals or do they determine the ambitions we have? In this case it seems that new technologies are driving aspirations, redefining the spectrum within which Pakistanis can think about their future.

If this model holds true elsewhere, it’s a hopeful sign for global development. Best of all, it means the hours I spend on YouTube aren’t procrastination after all.

Maha Atal ’08 is a citizen of the world

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