Like Haiti, Somalia, and Mississippi, India's Bihar state has been called many unflattering names; it's often referred to as the country's "bleakest state" and the "jungle Raj" for its colonial levels of poverty and corruption. Many viewed it as one of the most dysfunctional corners of a country world famous for government dysfunction. Much of that began to change, however, when a low-key bureaucrat from a local center-left party, Nitish Kumar, won the 2005 election and set out to clean up a wasteland where 100 million people are squeezed into a territory smaller than Arkansas.
In his two terms in office, he has done just that, relying on an array of innovative programs to crack down on crime, shame corrupt public officials, and boost economic development. In addition to setting up a special fast-track court system to move trials along more quickly, Kumar's administration has offered cash rewards to whistleblowers and has broadcast bribery complaints on YouTube. A law passed last year allows the government to take control of ill-gotten land and, unless the owner is cleared in court, use it for schools and health clinics. He has overseen the construction of nearly 15,000 schools, hired 150,000 new teachers, launched a program to give free bikes to girls so they can get to class, and distributed free radios to lower-caste citizens to "listen to music, news, and improve your areas of information," as he put it. With crime rates finally plummeting and education rates rising, there's no question these efforts have paid off. In 2011, Indian economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari called Bihar India's least corrupt state, and this year the state's service- and agriculture-based economy was the country's fastest-growing for the second year in a row (this while India's national economy is waning and, with it, enthusiasm for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh). Although Kumar says he's not a candidate to replace Singh, he is now being floated as a potential prime minister for 2014. Quite a leap for the leader of a region once decried as a "criminal fiefdom."
When the Tor Project was announced a decade ago, Google was still largely seen as fulfilling its corporate motto, "Don't be evil," and Twitter didn't even exist. But researchers Roger Dingledine, Nick Mathewson, and Paul Syverson could already see trouble on the horizon. Created in a U.S. naval lab to safeguard government communications, their brainchild the Tor Project (which stands for "the onion router") is designed to protect anyone and everyone from the dangers of Big Brother. The free software, now relied on by hundreds of thousands of users daily, bounces information through the computers of 3,000 volunteers around the world, hiding the identity of the original user.
Operated by just 15 full-time employees with a budget just over $1 million, thanks to grants from the U.S. State Department and the National Science Foundation, Tor allows people who otherwise might be silenced online -- whether corporate whistleblowers or domestic-violence victims -- to bring important information to light. It has become an especially critical tool over the last two years as activists and journalists from Bahrain to Syria find themselves the targets of increasingly tech-savvy tyrants. "We developed Tor originally with civil liberties in mind," Dingledine told an interviewer. "We want to let people in free countries be able to communicate and secure their communications so they can keep their freedoms." Bit by bit, it's working.
DINGLEDINE Reading list: Kallocain, by Karin Boye; Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay; Blindsight, by Peter Watts. Best idea: Holding Western corporations accountable for selling censorship and surveillance tools to dictators. Worst idea: Bloggers shouldn't get the First Amendment protections that journalists do. American decline or American renewal? Decline, unless we can solve the corporate influence on our government. More Europe or less? Either, but pick one. To tweet or not to tweet? Feel free.
MATHEWSON Reading list: Homestuck (webcomic in progress), by Andrew Hussie; The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker; Overcoming Bias (blog). Best idea: Cryptoparties, though the execution still needs work. Worst idea: The constellation of anti-democratic speech regulations and surveillance proposals operating under the names of "Internet safety," "copyright enforcement," and the like. American decline or American renewal? That's up to us, isn't it? More Europe or less? Some of each; European unity is not a single axis. To tweet or not to tweet? Yes, if you have a good number of 140-character ideas.