My parents took me to Vietnam for the very first time last December, and I’ve been thinking a lot about technology, the world, and the incredible times that we live in. When my parents left South Vietnam 34 years ago, they were not only leaving a country that was dissolving around them, but also lives of comfort and prestige to start all over again as a factory worker and short-order cook at a truck stop. As a child growing up in Ohio, I had this impression that Vietnam was a faraway and fuzzy land, one that, truthfully, was no more real to me than Middle Earth.
From the moment I arrived, this impression evaporated, replaced by the reality of what I experienced. I saw a place where 65% of the population was under 30, where education is perceived as the path to upward mobility, and a society where the past 30 years of economic development has been compressed into 10 years. Vietnam is a place of unsurprisingly delicious foods and amazing vistas, but it’s also a place where many people live without plumbing and sanitation, and the average person earns less than $100 a month. Vietnam is definitely a developing country- one with a vast gulf between the Bentley-driving elite and the average person, and it’s also a country that’s getting its first music television channel and 3G broadband at the same time.
This was a significant trip for me- I saw the birthplace of my parents, heard stories of their escape in 1975, and met family members I didn’t know I had. We slept on a boat in Ha Long Bay, visited the thousand-year-old capital of Hanoi, heard government music every morning at 5am for daily calisthenics, toured the former Independence Palace in Saigon, saw the floating markets of Can Tho, and saw the imperial villa in the mountain city of Da Lat. While my parents were patient and generous tour guides, it was clear that today’s Vietnam was almost as new to them as it was to me and my wife. Even the language had evolved after 35 years of reunification and modernization.
As a Mozilla employee, I work on making the internet better for everyone. As the Director of Add-ons, I want to empower people to change not only the world but their own lives with open and free technologies. I get constant reminders of how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to focus my professional energies on such a noble pursuit, but nowhere has this been more poignant than Vietnam. Over there, I saw idealistic young people who were empowered and determined to not only change their own destinies, but also the destiny of their entire country. The Internet remains a new and wondrous thing there, and throngs of aspirational young Vietnamese spend their entire savings on computers and internet access. Free distance learning programs empower the motivated with the technology skills to become programmers and make a transformational change to the quality of their lives.
This is amazing. When someone has the potential to increase their income tenfold from free lessons on the internet, it underscores how vital it is that the basic technologies for creating and browsing content on the Internet remain free and open. First-world software economics here are patently ludicrous- the iPhone developer program costs the equivalent of an entire month’s salary. The fundamental web technologies that drive innovation on the web and browser should continue to be free without a tax on innovation, and many of these free technologies form the building blocks of commercial services and software. There is no irony in earning a living with Open Source.
On a more personal note, my father spent the first 61 years of his life without the ability to type in Vietnamese- until a Firefox extension made it trivially easy for him to do so. A tiny piece of software written by a Vietnamese-American college student gave him the gift of written communication in his native language. Add-ons are often written by people who are trying to meet their own needs. The fact that our needs are so similar is a reminder that we are more alike than we are different.