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The Internet, the Pope, and the iPod

By Tracy Mitrano
Director of IT Policy and Computer Law and Policy,
Cornell University (NY)

This spring I had a little epiphany. Asked to teach Internet law to seventeen students from around the world at a special program in Piacenza, Italy (the instruction, thank heavens, is in English), I was reminded of what makes the Internet so exciting: the opportunity for communication, relationships, and possibly even greater understanding among people from all over the world. A number of students were from the financial community in Western Europe seeking information technology and management knowledge to augment their banking skills. But there were also two students, one from Dublin and the other from Manila, who had met in the program and who had decided to start their own online business together. A student from Malawi and one from Vietnam, each country currently having only about 10 percent network penetration, expect to bring back learning to help modernize their mother countries. A woman from Belize dreams of doing something creative with information technology. A Church of Latter Day Saints former missionary from Salt Lake City, now married to an Italian woman and the only US citizen in the class, wants to do Web site translations from his new, adopted home in Italy. A banker from Sudan and I become friends.

A week after I leave Italy, Pope John Paul II dies. Not Catholic, I nonetheless am entranced by the throngs of people who converge on Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate his life. What touches me is not the dogma nor the theology, but the sense that in these internationally troubled and divisive times people from all over the world come together in search of communion. A few weeks later, with the proceeds of my teaching stint in Italy, I finally break down and buy an iPod. Long a music lover, I download bunches of songs from my iTunes account and take my new toy on walks with me in the spring that has sprung, finally, in Ithaca. But having the music is not my only pleasure; I fully recognize that with this purchase I have joined a club, the legions of students I see everyday on the Cornell campus, and around town, and all over the world it seems, who have those tantalizing white wires hanging from their ears. I have something now in common with my own children, who wouldn’t dream of going to school without their totem Minis. Commercial, material, and innovative, this device is the secret password to the ranks of a society much larger, and infinitely much cooler, than me.

The Internet, the Pope and the iPod, seemingly improbable companions, all share that sense of transcendental connection. Currently working in information technology, and perennially interested in the related politics, I ponder how I can turn this insight into policy. “Build it and they will come” rings the Field of Dreams mantra in my ears. And so technologists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and computer scientists have built the hardware, engineered the protocols, laid the oceanic cables, written the software, and designed the applications. And we have come to it from all over the world, from a vast variety of professions, interests, personalities, and proclivities. For better and for worse the whole spectrum of human behavior exhibits itself digitally. What an opportunity.

For a moment I caution myself on not becoming too sanguine. “It is, after all, only a technology, and like all technologies—a sword, the atom bomb, a telephone line—it can be used for good as well as for ill. Don’t get so carried away that you lose your highly honed, Freudian sense of human nature, Tracy.” True enough, for didn’t the 9/11 terrorists use computer terminals in libraries and the Internet to communicate their deadly intensions? But something optimistic still pulls at me. But for this technology I would have never met, much less made friends with the man from Sudan, a country at terrible odds with the US currently. And Vietnam? All I could think when I met this young man was of my own youthful attachment to older cousins who joined the anti-war movement and all that sixties and seventies history. I surprisingly felt embarrassed when I introduced myself. Because I am a US citizen would he automatically hate me? Did he have family who died in the awful conflict? What did he want, or expect, from me? And yet, we forged a sense of shared ethics about learning and the rigors of academic study. Since I cherish higher education, these shared ethics hold particular meaning to me, a value pooled by this extraordinary technology. And isn’t there something similar in the feel of watching the funeral procession in St. Peters, or even dangling those white wires from my ears in unison with consumers globally?

The Italians use the word “exploit” differently than English-speaking people. While we have negative connotations for it, the Italians mean it in the sense of realizing potential. In that sense, we should “exploit” the Internet, this great and auspicious opportunity to realize a global tool for communication. We need more people like that fellow from Utah who seek through language to internationalize Internet accessibility. Contrary to protectionist currents in contemporary US politics, we should delight in the fact that someone in Bangalore can do the work of an information technology or customer service professional for someone in New Jersey. We should want to know more about and from our Muslim brothers and sisters, and not all just from American print media or TV. How differently would we see intervention in Iraq or democracy in Indonesia if we had the hallowed chance to talk to someone from one of those countries? How, through Internet dialogue, can we support our Chinese compatriots who risk their lives everyday to exercise that most fundamental of American values: freedom of expression?

There is something “catholic”—with a small “c:” universal, general—about the Internet, the Pope, and the iPod for me. And while I am still too close to the experience of this spring to know what it all means, I do recognize that it has explosive, exploitable, and very possibly hopeful potentialities.

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