Reading Shervin Pishevar's article "Humans are the Routers" this morning, I reflected on how much has happened, not just in the past year, but in the past few months, in terms of necessity-driven innovation around communication and media tech since I wrote and spoke about the emergence of lightweight DIY networks, simple hardware and applications for the developing—or as someone say, emerging—world in late 2009 and early 2010. A year has really been like a decade in terms of grassroots innovation.
Because they have had to, under dramatically difficult conditions, an amazing array of people across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, the US and beyond have cobbled together some ingenious ways to fuse state of the art mobile and Web tools with tried and tested physical workarounds, and a generous amount of sneaker/sandal/bootnet to keep critical communication running that both allows the outside world to know the situation inside strife-torn areas. They've organized resistance, directed resources, alerted families and friends, and spread critical knowledge inside Tunisia, Egypt, Lbya, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other areas, rocketing the state of the art forward in a short period of time. They have also shown that technology alone isn't the answer, but human ingenuity and physical acts remain an irreplaceable part of this ecosystem.
Pishevar's proposal to develop human-carried mesh network technology is a logical evolution of this development. The case studies for "why" are no longer isolated, but have been on our screens hourly for the past two months. The thinking that emerged in IFTF's recent A Planet of Civic Laboratories: the Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion forecast has been put through a pressure cooker, with citizens taking the innovation lead. We know we need more now, and the genie will not go back in the bottle.
It also sets up an interesting contrast between the developed world's view of technology—as something to entertain, fill empty moments with funny cats, get us to the nearest Urban Outfitters, and stream sports—with the utility-driven mindset of the emerging world. Don't get me wrong, many were on Facebook before this started, and sent jokes, played music and kept up with the favorite soap storylines. The difference is the speed with which mobiles in particular were turned from medium to tool. The telling moment the seeming strangulation that was felt with networks went down. It denied those in need the use of tools as much, or moreso, than channels. This is what the OpenMesh project and others like it are seeking to fix, protecting the tools even as the channels close down.
Hopefully these events are giving us pause for thought outside the regions affected as to how we can create lighter, more resilient, occasionally analog products and services that are not only less expensive and processor heavy, but hopefully more useful in our daily lives. It will be interesting to see if and how these solutions trickle up, join with other lightweight technologies and transform how we live, communicate and support.