“But the point of the trip wasn’t to bring some American Internet brand into the country; it’s about the raw piping for how people connect with each other in ways that just literally don’t compute if you’ve been in the Saddam dark ages for a bunch of decades,” Mr. Heiferman continued. “This isn’t bringing McDonald’s to Iraq. It’s bringing some of the rawest ideas of how technology helps them be more themselves.”
THE GROUP can’t necessarily build Internet infrastructure in Iraq with their own hands, but they can spark another important initiative—using the Internet to empower the Iraqi people.
“This is one of the most exciting areas of conflict-resolution work going on today,” said Sheldon Himelfarb, who specializes in technology and media tactics for post-conflict peace-building and development for the D.C.-based United States Institute of Peace. “What this medium is allowing them to do is get a sense of confidence, connection with the rest of the world, and not only connection with the rest of the world but communities in their own countries.”
Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who chronicles new-media and technology advances in the Middle East on his blog, Abu Aardvark, describes a “total free-for-all, new-media space” for young people to build upon. “It [is] more about them themselves and forming ideas, forming relationships, trying to figure out ways of engaging with a society that seemed to have no place for them,” Mr. Lynch said during a discussion last week at the Open Society Institute titled “The Political Impact of New Media in the Middle East.” “The new ideas, the fact that they become different kinds of citizens, empowered in different ways and with different expectations of each other, of their government, of other societies”—this is what could make a major change in the Middle East.
As far as the Iraqi government’s commitment to building a stronger tech infrastructure and understanding the power of the Web, Mr. Heiferman said it “was a mixed bag” among officials. “Sometimes you’d think the commitment was there, and sometimes you’d think not, depending on who you’re talking to.”
There also seemed to be a cultural disconnect—most Iraqis aren’t hyped up on Twitter, for example. “There was comedy in seeing Jack Dorsey talk to a bunch of bearded 60-year-old Saddam-era Iraqis about how important it is to hear about your sister eating a sandwich,” he said.
“But we sort of take for granted how valuable Craigslist is for our lives and Google is for our lives and YouTube is for our lives,” Mr. Heiferman said.
“Our whole purpose here is to listen and try to understand the way they kind of are looking at the possibility of investing in Internet infrastructure and having a discussion of the need that people have. We tried to explain the basic notion of having a private sector, the basic notion of being a democracy, and that the Internet will be increasingly vital if they’re going to participate in the larger world.”