Tuesday, September 16, 2008
My visit to Pakistan
How do we develop points of view about places we have not seen and people we have not met?
Newspapers, TV networks, film studios, radio broadcasters, and book publishers have, of course, exerted significant influence over our assumptions for years. Today, thanks to the Internet, our views about far away peoples and places are also informed by a countless group of peers spanning the globe. But no matter how powerful and instructive a blog, Wikipedia article, or YouTube video may be, no technology will ever replace real immersion -- live and in person.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Pakistan, which just celebrated 61 years as an independent state. Before my visit, my views about Pakistan had largely been shaped by Western media -- and these days, it's difficult to open a newspaper without coming across a story highlighting the country's "tumultuous" sociopolitical environment.
But do these depictions represent the entire truth? Do they credibly tell the whole story of a nation of more than 160 million people? Surely not. For instance, did you know that the Karachi Stock Exchange has been among Asia's top performers this decade -- and was named the "World's Top-Performing Market" by BusinessWeek and Bloomberg a few years ago? Probably not.
I was invited to Pakistan on the occasion of the launch of "CIO Magazine Pakistan" and spent time in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore. This was the first "official" visit to Pakistan by a Googler and I was able to interact extensively with ordinary Internet users, media organizations, business houses, and government officials - including the IT Secretary, the Pakistan Software Export Board, the National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes, and the National ICT R&D Fund.
I left Pakistan with a single thought: that there is enormous potential for this nation to emerge as a leading center of growth and innovation.
During my visit, Pakistan's blogging community expressed impressive passion for the Internet medium, media organizations demonstrated a propensity for serious journalism, business leaders conveyed a track record of innovation, and government officials offered a refreshing receptiveness to new ideas.
It's an especially exciting time for information and communication technologies in the country: Pakistan's rapidly-growing Internet population of 17 million and sizeable mobile phone subscriber base of 89 million present innumerable opportunities for all those interested in delivering empowering services for Pakistani users.
Of course, we at Google will not achieve our own mission unless we deepen our relationships with Pakistani users and institutions. Though we're delighted that google.com.pk is Pakistan's top web site and that nearly one third of blogs registered with Pakistan's first blog aggregator are registered with our free blogging service Blogger, we know we have a long way to go as we strive to meet the unique needs of Pakistani users.
Importantly, Pakistan's Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunications has recently initiated an open consultation to revise the country's National IT Policy. This represents a significant opportunity for all stakeholders to ensure that the Internet in Pakistan develops as a free and open platform for information, communication, and innovation. I, for one, thank the government for formally inviting Google to participate in this policy making process.
As an American of Indian origin (with some ancestral roots in what is now Pakistan), my remaining emotions, observations, and recommendations are too many to list in this single post. I will say, though, that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Pakistan and develop my own point of view about one of the most important places in our world.