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Moldova: Power to the People, Electronically Speaking

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The news that some 10,000 to 15,000 young people met spontaneously in the capital of Moldova to protest recent and questionable elections was crowned physically by the storming of Moldova's Parliament and a breaching of the offices of its President. It was crowned in cyberspace as the embodiment of that old entreaty: "Power to the people" - this time, electronically delivered.

Key were short text messages sent via mobile devices. Some devices were simple cell phones, while others were more sophisticated, like the iPhone and its ilk, which can check streams of messages on Twitter and view full video and photos on any website anywhere. The entire swath of young people were further aided by GPS, which can tell you exactly where to go and exactly how to get there.

For people who can't understand how such a crowd could spontaneously assemble, remember that each of us knows a rather small, select group of people pretty well. If you blast a single message to all these people, and then these people turn around and send it on immediately to all the people they know, and so on, you get a sense of how fast a message can move. The fastest part is the technology. The slowest part is pretty fast as well - it's how long it takes a person to read the message and pass it on. The key is that starting with any single person you can get to everybody - so, in truth, everybody knows everybody.

But there's a little more to it than that.

The organizing power of this phenomenon was first seen in the US with the surprise success of "meet-up's" organized online during Howard Dean's ill-fated presidential run. This technology literally drew thousands of people to designated spots, again and again, and the only limiting factor was interest to do so. That's right, the motivation of everyone involved. Who knew how motivated the Dean supporters would be? So, while we may share common interests with our friends, any message we send them must be grandly compelling to carry it forward. Howard Dean as a new viable candidate was just such a compelling idea for young people in that moment, and for ten-to-fifteen thousand young people in Moldova, the idea of protesting what they believed to be rigged elections was even more so.

Once pulled together in the same spot, these young people started acting as all young people do - rashly, to be sure, but without a doubt, passionately. It was the kind of civil action witnessed in Berkeley in the sixties and nationwide across college campuses in the seventies. And the rhetoric of Moldova's protesters had another familiar ring: The desire to reject the values of their parents and an entire older generation. "Never trust anyone over thirty" was the Baby Boomers' mantra. These protesters may be young, but they are serious, and they will never ever forget that day.

While enjoying the euphoria of the moment, they also need to remember: There's always a downside to technology, and this one may lead to trouble in the future. All their messages and photos and the like, and where they physically were through it all, is sitting there as data on their mobile phone provider's computers and in each other's cell phones and on the Internet and who knows where else. These same thousands of young people may be pursued and prosecuted, put on a list somewhere that feeds onto another list, and still another. They may find in the years to come that they are asked again and again about that day, and suffer consequences - both known and unknown - from their participation.

For in the end, as always, this isn't about technology; it's about power. And no government - communist or otherwise - gives it up without a fight. But the young people of Moldova have one thing previous generations never had - access to information technology.

Yes, the Information Age has arrived, and without a doubt, information and freedom are inextricably linked. Truth be told, the power of governments will never be the same.