With social media, State embraces disruption

Government can't control the technology, but it can make use of it

Jared Cohen, who sits on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff, calls himself a technopragmatist. Technology is neither good nor bad, he said. “The technologies themselves don’t choose sides; people do.” We can fear them or embrace them, but like it or not, “the tools themselves are out there in the public domain,” he added.

The State Department has decided to embrace the new tools. “We are venturing into a foreign policy that takes advantage of the technology” while recognizing the risk, he said.

Cohen focuses on counterterrorism, counterradicalization, technology and innovation, the Middle East, youth issues and public diplomacy at State. He also is chairman of the Policy Planning Staff Working Group on 21st-century statecraft. At a recent Ogilvy Exchange talk in Washington, he said the department’s moves into 21st-century communications are still in the start-up phase.

“You can’t go from zero to 60,” he said. The government is not much of an innovator in this area, but it's watching the innovators closely, learning the uses and pitfalls of the new tools. Most U.S. embassies and ambassadors are on Facebook, something that would have been inconceivable three years ago, he added.

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Tools available to diplomats extend far beyond social networking sites to include an increasingly diverse but converging collection of technologies that can put a variety of cellular, radio frequency and IP options into a single device beyond the control of any one entity. Cohen told of coming across a group of young men in Iran using Bluetooth-enabled cell phones to communicate. They were not worried about government restrictions, they said, because, “nobody over 30 knows what Bluetooth is.”

That resonated with Cohen, himself just 28. During the Cold War, the United States typically saw technological innovation as a zero-sum game: It benefited either our side or their side. But the new generation of communications technology is neutral. It is being adopted by the people, and although it cannot be controlled, it can be taken advantage of.

“Communications technologies are the most disruptive innovation since the invention of the printing press,” Cohen said. He called them more disruptive than the printed word, TV or radio because new communications do not require an intermediary; they empower the individual directly.

Grass-roots leaders who understand the concept of the flash mob have been able to organize protests that have put millions of people into the streets around the world with no real organization, Cohen said. Twitter and cell phones have enabled dissidents to communicate with one another inside their countries and with the outside world during unrest when governments are cracking down on traditional communications channels.

What these new-wave movements lack is the ability to form more permanent, cohesive organizations that can engage with governments to bring about permanent changes. Bridging those worlds is a challenge and an opportunity for the United States, Cohen said. It might not be easy for the over-30 crowd that is typically in charge of things to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new media and new technologies, but State is slowly feeling its way into the arena.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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