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Instant Communication Changes Customs, Politics in Developing World

High-tech gadgets such as cell phones are bringing profound change to developing nations, and not just economic progress. Text messaging, the Internet and other innovations are having wide ranging social repercussions, from exposing human rights abuses by repressive governments to breaking traditional taboos governing courtship and other human relationships. VOA's Bill Rodgers has more in this final report from our series on how technology is changing society and politics in the developing world, with additional reporting by Rosyla Kalden & Steve Herman in India.

Young people in India, like everywhere else in the world, have embraced the cell phone, using it for everything from calling home to contacting members of the opposite sex.

Indian sociologist Radhika Chopra says the cell phone and other technological innovations are having an impact on how some young people are courting each other these days, mainly because parents have less control.

"The behavior of teenagers, and young adults in the public space was much more visible and regulated, you might say," Chopra said. "You couldn't express unwanted [unsanctioned] love, let us say, in a public space - and you still can't, actually."

"But the Internet and the mobile phone have created a kind of subset of society of youngsters in same age group, of the same kinds of backgrounds or even across class and caste backgrounds and so on. And I think this has actually enabled them to be much more independent in their thinking about, let's say, what kinds of marriage would they look for," she continued.

Not all young Indians welcome these new freedoms. Isha, a fashionable young woman in New Delhi, rejects overtures via text messages. "Once or twice it happened, some unknown people texted me and I just told them to mind their own business and not to disturb me," Isha said.

Advances in communications via the Internet and cell phone are having similar impacts on other traditional societies such as Iran. They are helping to break down religious and other restrictions, according to Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in Washington.

"If you have a society that is very restrictive about public relationships between men and women, men and women still have to get together in some way, and these technologies provide a means of making appointments with one another that weren't available before. So I think inevitably they have this kind of subversive effect on authority," Molella said.

Such an effect on authority can include exposing repression in closed societies. Images of the protests in Tibet earlier this year were caught by digital cameras and transmitted to the outside world. The resulting international outcry over the Chinese crackdown is still resonating, and threatens to spill over into the Olympic Games, which China is hosting.

In China itself, the Internet has served as a way to organize opposition to the construction of chemical plants and other projects viewed as harmful to health and the environment.

The New York Times recently reported that residents of the provincial capital of Chengdu took to the streets early this month in a peaceful protest against the construction of a multi-billion dollar petro-chemical plant. The article says the protest was organized through Web sites, blogs and cellphone text messages.

Anti-government protests in Venezuela also have been staged through text messages sent out by organizers. Molella says governments are finding it increasingly difficult to stop these political mobilizations.

"Just as the resistance in the Soviet Union took advantage of the fax machine at one time, these are infinitely more powerful technologies for getting information out very quickly," Molella said. "Governments usually have to catch up if they want to stop something proliferating on the Internet. I think it's this instant communication and talking back to authority, as it were, that is changing the political scene."

Molella and others say the full magnitude of these technological innovations and their impact on societies have yet to play out.