You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Talkin', and Not, About the New Wired World Order

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, October 25 2010

Ciudad Juarez, where the U.S. State Department is working to build a mobile narco-violence reporting tool; Photo credit: pmoroni.

What do you get when you blend Google CEO Eric Schmidt's worries about our ever more information-drenched society with State Department staffer-turn-Google "Ideas" director Jared Cohen's optimism about the new wired world order? This joint op-ed in the New York Times today:

Continuous innovation will pose difficult challenges for people and governments the world over. Even the best-informed and most active users of technology will find themselves caught in a blur of new devices and services. In an era when the power of the individual and the group grows daily, those governments that ride the technological wave will clearly be best positioned to assert their influence and bring others into their orbits. Those that do not will find themselves at odds with their citizens.

Schmidt and Cohen's distillation of Google's new conventional wisdom reflects a conclusion you hear articulated in the hallways of State*: it's not like if we don't do it, others won't. The world is now a connected one, and any thinking person needs to recognize that that has implications for the relationship between citizens, and between citizens and the governments under which they live on planet Earth. But that's much more a starting point than a path forward. Many of the examples Schmidt and Cohen use -- Oscar Morales and his 2008 No Mas FARC rallies started on Facebook, last summer's Twitter and YouTube flurry around post-election Iran (of which the pair writes, "Although they only had a small role in organizing the protests in Iran, these tools were instrumental in seizing the world’s attention") -- are of the misleading big bang sort we've discussed. All of which suggests that this op-ed represents a working out of Schmidt and Cohen's new working relationship, and a bid at moving the center of power in this conversation closer Google's way.

But still, what does that conviction about the world-changing potential of tech mean in practice, on the ground where real people are living out their lives? Related to the Schmidt-Cohen piece, the Alliance for Youth Movement's Susannah Vila puts into words a very good question: Where's the details on one of "digital diplomacy" movement's flagship projects, the State Department's planned mobile reporting system for narco-violence in Mexico's Ciudad Jarez trouble spot? (It's worth noting that AYM was co-launched by Cohen when he was still working at the State Department.) Here's Vila, pointing to some concerns being floated that suggest that the program is being too focused on tech:

Yesterday, in an important critique, the Mexico City based consultant to the Open Society Institute's Latin America and Information Programs, David Sasaki, suggested that technology might in this case be beside the point. He wrote:

"Academics and think tanks who study violence in Juarez and other hotspots in Mexico almost unanimously agree about the four root causes:

  • demand for illegal drugs in the United States.
  • availability of guns in Mexico that are legally purchased in the U.S.
  • lack of social investment, job opportunities, and youth programs to keep youth off the streets and out of gangs.
  • lack of an effective justice system that holds criminals accountable, including corrupt politicians, police officers, and soldiers."

Unless those 4 root causes are addressed, says Sasaki, the use of technology to address violence in Ciudad Juarez is moot.

I should note, I happened to be in the room when State's delegation to Mexico City floated the idea in extremely rough form of an anonymous tipline to Carlos Slim, the dominant factor in Mexico's telecom industry. Slim nodded, and made a lightly-detailed offer to help. Since then, the plan has evolved quietly; Vila points to this recent post on the Dipnote blog by the State Department's senior advisor on innovation Alec Ross that offers a few hints at the project ("There is no single and simple answer" to Juarez's woes, writes Ross, "but one ingredient we know is the key -- helping Mexican citizens take an active and effective role in their own security") and an interview by Ross with the Mexican media on the coming "Denuncia Anónima" in Juarez. Still, not much has been made known about how a mobile narco-violence reporting network plays out in practice.

Is this a project evolution that, asks Vila, that could happen in public, where various stakeholders could debate over whether it can, safely, be implemented in one of Mexico's most troubled places? Of course, open discussion of the particulars of the program would be a little difficult -- given that it's meant to be a secure way for people terrified of narco-violence to affect change in their communities. But still, there's much that can be talked about on what theory of change driving this "21st century statecraft" is, and how it copes with the challenges of the very messy real world without decending into being simply the United States' 21st century version of a corporate boondoggle cloaked as rescuing the rest of the world with American technical ingenuity. Once again -- but this time digital, and potentially with greater impact. This isn't the lastest Facebook app; it does matter a great deal if the spaghetti sticks, given that people's actual flesh-and-blood lives are at stake. The State Department is the American people's face in the world, so any citizen of this land is by definition a stakeholder in this new grand experiment. The time seems ripe for discussions of 21st century statecraft to move from its gee-whiz early days to critical thinking about how it can be done right.

That's ripe material for plenty of probing, not promotional, op-eds to come.