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“I think God is going to come down and pull civilization over for speeding” – Steven Wright, Academy Award winning American comedian, actor and writer.



Have you heard of a Kenyan lawyer based at Nairobi, called Ory Okolloh? I hadn’t, until I chanced upon a TED lecture she had delivered sometime after the 2007 Kenyan general elections that most agreed, had been heavily rigged.

Like the aftermath of any farcical election, there was rioting and bloodshed all over and the government put an immediate muzzle on the media. Okolloh started a blog titled, Kenyan Pundit, in which she began sharing information on what was happening over there. Soon she began inviting updates from readers who were in the thick of the unrest.

What followed was something that she hadn’t imagined in her wildest dreams. Posts and comments started pouring, turning into a deluge which she couldn’t handle all by herself. One day she mused out loud in a post,” I wish there was a way to automatically collate the information coming in…’

In her own words, “Two programmers who read my blog held their hands up and said, “We could do that,” and in 72 hours, we launched Ushahidi, which in Swahili means witness or testimony. Ushahidi takes reports from the field, whether it’s from the web or via mobile phones and SMS, aggregates them and puts them on a map. That’s all it does, but that’s all that is needed because it takes the available information to the whole population. Everybody knows where the violence is, but no one person knows what everyone knows. Ushahidi is a virtual bulletin board that updates itself every second and gives out a real-time status of a situation.”

With Ushahidi, the term “crisis mapping” was born. The organization uses the concept of crowd sourcing of information for social activism and public accountability. Similar virtual bulletin boards were in use in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia during various stages of the Arab Spring in early 2011. Besides events, the reader got to read opinion pieces from divergent points of view.

As per Wikipedia, Ory Okolloh was born into an impoverished family, but her parents sent her to a private school that they could barely afford and this set the foundation for her career ambitions later on. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh and graduated from Harvard Law School in 2005. Okolloh lives in Johannesburg with her husband and three children.

If I were to ask myself ‘what is meant by the modern age?’ then the unfettered spread of free thought through the internet in the way that Ory Okolloh’s Ushahidi facilitated, could be the start of the true modern age (though the use of the internet by the common public began much earlier, around 1995).

Today there are 60 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every single minute. 500 million tweets are sent out every day. One in six human beings has a Facebook account and one in ten Facebook users posts on an average 50 pieces of content every month. A mind-boggling digital archive is frothing and bubbling in the ‘cloud’ and will remain there for eternity, even centuries after we have all turned to dust.

There are other timelines, moments in history that can lay claim to be the beginning of the modern age, of course. The European Renaissance and the burst of artistic creativity that began in Florence around the 1400s, Rev Martin Luther and his middle finger to the demonic Roman Catholic Church, Swede Johannes Gutenberg and his mechanical press and the sudden deluge of publishing that European commoners began to voraciously read, Columbus et al and the birth of the world’s most powerful nation, Copernicus and Newton and their Scientific Revolution, the French Revolution and more middle fingers, this time at aristocracy, World War I and the birth of the military industrial complex, World War II and the birth of collective conscience resulting in the creation of the UN and the end of colonial empires, Glasnost and Perestroika and the birth of globalization – all of these events merit being held as the start of the modern age. (I would prefer not to include any developments in China and the far-east since those regimes had chosen to remain isolated).

I would go for globalization as the real start of the Modern Age, though I would not want to align myself with the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen’s glowing paean that globalization had brought prosperity to the whole world. I would go for the IMF’s admission that inequality has actually increased after globalization and that the flight of capital as well as jobs to developing nations has made western populations wary of the word. Today, after two decades of unchecked rampage, only around 20% of the educated masses anywhere in the world actually view globalization positively.

Still, globalization has been a lifestyle change and could serve as a bookmark in history, to signify the start of the Modern Age. Of course, some historians would prefer to shift the start of globalization three centuries backward from my timeline of globalization that began in the 1990s.

They would be referring to the globalization that began as a royal charter that was signed by Queen Elizabeth I, on New Year’s eve, AD1600……


Don’t go away, there is more coming on the globalization of the 1600s and the company that owned a nation, in Part-2


And remember the TED lecture from Ory Okolloh that I was referring to?

You’ll find it here…..