Hong Kong, Revolution, And How We Connect

Ignoring the fact that the saying “technology is always changing,” is overly redundant and overused; the saying “technology is always changing” is also very, very, true. The most recent world event that has piqued my interest has been the protests in Hong Kong. There are numerous cultural and political reasons for the protests, and the question of what is democracy is one of them.

Almost 20 years ago, in 1997, Hong Kong belonged to the United Kingdom, and the UK had just handed back HK to the Chinese government. During that 150 years of British rule, the citizens of HK got used to a certain affluence and experienced more freedoms when compared to their mainland counterparts. So to keep things smooth and running, Beijing allowed HK to maintain their autonomy and freedoms, “one country, two systems.”

The citizens of Hong Kong were promised to be able to vote for their own “leader,” (known as the Hong Kong Chief Executive). The first HKCE was a put into place by a committee, but come 2017 a new democratically elected HKCE. However mainland China has recently added the stipulation that said leader must be approved by China. Essentially this limits the real ability for the Hong Kong natives to choose their leader and representation now that they most likely will be a puppet of the State.

Ok, that is a thorough enough of an explanation of the situation, here is the interesting part to me, how the protesters are communicating. Revolutions are kind of a recurring theme in the 21st century; protest, violent turn overs, “Occupy” movements, and many many more protests and revolutions are almost always happening. Most of the time communication is made through social media, such as Twitter, however governments have the ability to shut down or block internet. Back in 2011 the San Francisco Bay Area transit officials cut off cell service (most likely with the assistance of cellular providers) between San Francisco and SFO at BART stations in response to the killing of a man in confrontation with transit police.

This is where the Hong Kong protests get interesting. Many pro-democracy protesters have moved to use an app called FireChat. Without needing to worry about local cellular networks being moderated, shut down, or controlled in any capacity, FireChat builds network based on WiFi, Cellular, and/or Bluetooth connections; allowing protesters to communicate even when the government shuts down cellular internet or is watching what is being said.

I personally love this, it reminds me of an interview former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was in. Schmidt’s passion and interest in Africa, as well as other emerging markets, is not really a secret to anyone. In said interview, he was discussing how people would be able to connect in Africa. At the time of the interview projects like Loon had not existed, so the real big problem in connecting Africa into the modern world was an internet connection. So what was the solution?

According to Schmidt it was the devices the people were using already. Even though the primary GSM networks were unreliable, by allowing devices to communicate directly with each other somewhat as microcells, that a mesh network of devices communicating could be used to disperse information in the region. In short, he described a “web” of things that functions an awful lot like how FireChat works. This simply amazes me.

At the time when I was watching the interview with Eric Schmidt some 2 or 3 years ago, I thought that the notion was absurd but interesting, and to see that technology is being used like this in Hong Kong today just stuns and wows me. Regardless though it’s a good thing, and while I am definitely not happy with the situation in Hong Kong, I’ve left the current status of the people out of this because that is just an ugly story, the innovation and technology used by pro-democracy protesters is something I only “imagined” a few years ago.

Now the technology is real, and being honest, technology is always a driving factor for any great change in the world. This though begs the question, what is the great change we will now see in China?

Originally published at blog.mehdisolati.com on October 6, 2014.

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