>BAGHDAD– What good is YouTube when electricity is sporadic? Is Google relevant if computer access remains a rarity? Can Twitter save Iraq by making its newborn democracy responsive to its people?
These are the questions in the air as the United States State Department brought nine executives from some of the world’s most famous communications technology companies to Baghdad for a four-day visit intended to promote civil society in a country not far removed from civil war.
“They have more or less lived under a culture that is very focused around a centralized government,” Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, said of the Iraqis in an interview with reporters at the American Embassy on Wednesday. “And a lot of things are changing right now. So the more information you provide about how those changes are going – whether good or bad, really get the information out there – everybody feels a bit more secure.”
If envisioning a new world of technology transforming a place like Iraq might seem a bit like putting the cart before the donkey (a pre-industrial metaphor, perhaps, but donkeys pulling carts are not a rare sight here), consider this:
There are pages on Facebook devoted to honoring the jailed journalist who threw his shoe at President Bush during his visit to Iraq last December.
The executives – from YouTube, Twitter, Google, AT&T, Meetup, Howcast, the publisher of WordPress and Blue State Digital, the company that played a part in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign – met with government officials, Iraqi businessmen and students and connected, if you will, in ways that seemed to surprise them.
“The exciting piece we heard today and yesterday with students is that even though the connectivity is slow and sometimes spotty, behavior-wise, they’re on line all day long, as much as they can,” said Raanan Bar-Cohen, a vice president of Automattic Inc., the company that produces WordPress, who has posted updates on the trip on his own blog.
None of the executives had been to Iraq before, and their impressions conveyed a wide-eyed freshness toward a battered landscape that nonetheless contained glimmers of hope.
“A bit hotter today in Baghdad,” Mr. Dorsey tweeted on his site, which can be found by searching #iraqTech. “So much concrete. It’s everywhere.” He also, somewhat improbably, saw a historical precursor to his product in two cuneiform tablets he noticed at the recently reopened National Museum.
Mr. Bar-Cohen noted figures, from government and industry officials, that only 5 percent of Iraqis have internet connections at home, though internet cafes are proliferating.
On the other hand, mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous — even if service from the three major companies “creates a bit of a comical situation where many people carry at least 2 phones with them from different providers to make sure they can conduct business regardless of where they are.”
They experienced the difficulties first hand when the connection kept failing during a conference call with one of Iraq’s deputy prime ministers, Barham Salih. Finally, they met the old-fashioned way on Wednesday: in person.
Together the executives seemed to share the conviction that communication – their bread-and-butter, of course – could overcome the deeply ingrained habits of a country that has endured decades of dictatorship and war.
“It seems that everyone is trying to increase the level of services people are getting,” David Nassar of Blue State Digital said of Iraq’s leaders, a view that not one Iraqi voter interviewed recently shared.
“Why? Because the more infrastructure that exists here, the more that is going to help to contribute to the stability of the country. The more that people have to lose, the less likely they are going to want to destroy it.”
So did Mr. Dorsey persuade Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, with whom they dined at the presidential residence (“amazing palace”) to start tweeting his constituents? “Not yet,” he said. Later, though, he wrote that he’d signed up Mr. Salih, the deputy prime minister.