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The Bush Years: A growth in communication, evolving politics and war on terror

In March 2000, a survey found that just about half of adults had cell phones, only 46 percent were using the Internet, and less than 5 percent of homes were equipped with high-speed, broadband connections. Today, 83 percent of American adults have cell phones, 74 percent use the Internet, and broadband use has jumped to 58 percent.

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office, many of the estimated 2 million people in the crowd will hold up their cell phones to capture a photo of the moment.

Security officials have said that so many people talking, or worse, sending bandwidth-eating pictures to the Internet, could bring down cell service to the entire area. The American Red Cross’ preparedness guide to attending the events on the Mall — yes, even the Red Cross is worried — recommends that participants only send text messages.

Much has changed in the eight years since President George W. Bush looked out over his own Inauguration Day audience, but perhaps most significant to daily life is the rapid rise of digital connectivity, or what technologists view as the combination of high-speed Internet access, widespread cell phone use, and mobile technologies.

As some physical barricades went up around the country, global communication barriers were broken down. People from Kabul to Kansas are using so-called "Web 2.0" tools such as YouTube, Facebook and blogs, to create new Web content at lightning speed, instantly sharing information and ideas.

The resulting shift of power over information in the past decade, experts argue, cannot be understated. Academics have likened it to 100 years ago, when mass media debuted on a global scale.

"Our relationship to government, to media, and to one another are all different," said David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, "[and] heading toward profoundly different."

Most notably, Weinberger said, everyone expects "constant and total knowledge."

Consider that in March 2000, the first survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that just

about half of adults had cell phones, only 46 percent were using the Internet, and less than 5 percent of homes had high-speed, broadband connections.

Today, 83 percent of American adults have cell phones, 74 percent use the Internet, and broadband home use has jumped from 5 percent to 58 percent.

Internet users have stepped away from desktop computers and now are creating and participating in a constant global conversation on every imaginable topic.

Some estimates find that at least half of all adults online use social networking tools such as Facebook, which on Jan. 15 announced it had reached 150 million active members, 70 percent of whom are outside the United States.

"It’s hard to think of a dimension of commercial life — or even for that matter nonprofit life — that isn’t taking place online. There are churches that are online that are offering prayer sermons and worship services," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.

Indeed, the flood of online use has outpaced governments’ ability to manage it.

In 2006, the Army’s Web Risk Assessment Cell, or AWRAC, which didn’t exist when Bush took office, scanned 1,200 military Web sites and blogs, or milblogs, for potential security leaks. Immediately, bloggers flagged it as a Soviet-style purge against digital freedom.

The audit’s results, obtained a year later by the Electronic Frontier Foundation via a Freedom of Information Act request, showed nearly 2,000 cases of operational security breaches on the military’s own Web sites, but "at most, 28," breaches on nearly 600 personal blogs reviewed.

With the number of news reporters in Iraq dwindling from more than 700 to less than 10, according to one count, Wired magazine defended milblogs as "one of the last direct witnesses to the Iraq war from the point of view of front line soldiers."

Soldiers who grew up in the information-sharing digital age suddenly faced very old traditions of operational secrecy. But today’s blog analysts say the idea of stifling online content, even in battle zones, may be futile. Milbogs, they say, are as enmeshed into the fabric of military life as any other facet of society.

"It’s everything from military personnel in the field, [to] soldiers themselves and families back home on the homefront," said John Kelly, chief scientist of Morningside Analytics, which analyzes blog content and traffic around the world, "as well as retired military who have a great deal of expertise."

The Army tried to downplay a Big Brother image. "Thinking twice before posting potentially harmful information is all it takes to help keep Army personnel and their families a little more secure," wrote a staffer from the Army’s Chief Information Office.

But then an Army intelligence report in October flagged the social networking site Twitter as a potential terrorists’ tool that could reveal the Army’s "operational capabilities," in real time. It noted that protesters at the 2008 political party conventions Twittered each other to report on police movements (and improper use of force). Blogs overwhelmingly ridiculed the Army for labeling Twitter "a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists."

That point of contention, Weinberger noted, is happening today in Israel, where the government, citing national security concerns, has tried to control information coming out of Gaza by barring journalists. The move has led international news outlets and humanitarian groups to laud those posting blogs and video online from inside the conflict zone. Academics studying the blogosphere say they actually have found surprising trends about how these functions may help national security and military objectives.

Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, a project of Harvard’s Berkman Center, which monitors blogs from the developing world, said it’s time the U.S. begins to recognize how the landscape has changed.

Sigal and Kelly were panelists at a U.S. Institute of Peace conference this month that featured CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus and largely focused on finding "nonmilitary solutions" to the war in Afghanistan and many other conflicts.

"We should expect a future in which conflict takes place within connected environments," even in the most remote and unstable regions of the world, Sigal said.

Afghanistan had no bloggers four years ago, Sigal explained, but today there are an estimated 6,000 Afghan blogs and 400,000 Internet users there. A new telecommunications trunk line there soon will lead to "massive growth" of Internet use.

Kelly said Afghan’s blogosphere heavily linked to the American blogosphere.

"Some of that is military and intel, some of that is politics, some of that is international NGO workers," Kelly said. All of it "makes for a kind of trade in information and awareness that’s sort of interesting. I mean, that’s something that we’ve never really seen before in media, where a blogger in Kabul is three hops from American A-list bloggers."

On Inauguration Day, at least, those bloggers will have to wait to see how Obama, after a campaign and transition that was praised for using the Internet to encourage citizen participation and mobilize the electorate while showing transparency, will harness digital civil discourse that yearns to be free of government reins.

"We expect that we will be able to get better answers and better questions from one another," said Weinberger.

"There’s a sense increasingly that this is something we’re doing for ourselves. We are informing one another. We are explaining our world to one another."


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