Alec Ross – technology that empowers, not overpowers

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Alec Ross is Senior Adviser on Innovation to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He formerly helped launch the nonprofit One Economy, a group dedicated to closing the digital divide for social causes, and brought his expertise with new media to the Obama campaign.

A couple of days ago, we were introduced to an Australian choreographer – Zolli introduced him as having come furthest to the conference. Alec explains that, as someone coming from the federal government, he may have conceptually come furthest to this conference, and wonders if appearing on this stage, not wearing a suit, will precipitate a drug test on Monday.

“I’m here not to introduce a breakthrough innovation or take a bow, but to share chapter one, page one of how I and other colleagues are reimagining America, specifically in terms of its relationship and role in the wider world,” he tells us. “It was tough to be an American the last five or six years of the Bush administration and travel abroad.” It’s time for a reboot, a reimagining of how we engage in the wider world.


Alec Ross, photo by Kris Krg

The new frame for this thinking is 21st century statecraft. It’s made possible both by the election of Barack Obama. But it’s also made possible by a tin toy maker in Togo. He shows us a beautiful set of tin scultpures made by a craftsman in a Togolese village, brought to him by a dear friend who travels frequently to Togo. The craftsman told the woman, “You come to me every few months and buy whatever I have on offer. If you just had a smartphone, like me, you could send me an email with a request for what I could make for you.”

We need technology that’s empowering, not overpowering. How do we migrate America’s foreign policy, understanding that power is the currency in Washington. The connection between power and information is longstanding – that’s how the Catholic church maintained spiritual and political hegemony for centuries. It wasn’t until the printing press and its miniaturization that power devolved to individuals, leading to the Protestant Reformation. After the Catholic Church lost political hegemony, we saw the formation of small nation states, and the emergence of early modern-day diplomacy.

Diplomacy is largely done government to goverment, white guys in white shirts with red ties to other white guys in white shirts with red ties. In the Obama administration, we want to go beyond communicating government to govermnent. There’s nothing to keep us from going into the Oval Office and having the president address Iranians and Farsi speakers directly. For the first time in years, America was talking to Iran… and it went viral very quickly.

“If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t have made a midnight ride – he would have tweeted. And the lantern hangers would be retweeters.”

Obama’s speech in Egypt wasn’t just to students in Cairo or Egyptian politicians – he was speaking to Muslim youth all over the world.

Eastern Congo is truly one of the toughest places on the planet – per capita GDP is $184, and sexual violence is at unprecedented levels. “But when I got off the UN plane in Goma, my Blackberry lit up with three wireless networks. There were more 3G networks in Goma than in Camden, Maine.” Two sectors of the economy are thriving in the eastern DRC – beer and mobile phones. How can we use the widespread access to mobile telephony to empower, not overpower.

Alec wonders how we could work with entrepreneurs and Pop!Tech fellows to create economic self-sufficiency in developing nations. Mobile banking is not an American innovation – its roots are primarily in Kenya. We need to scale programs like mobile banking in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are no basic financial services in these communities – the best thing the US could do is bring mobile banking to these communities. “This is truly 21st century statecraft.”

Much of the sexual violence against women was taking place due to lack of situational awareness. Violence takes place when women leave refugee camps to get food or firewood. The UN peacekeepers keep pretty good track of bad guys… but they’re not communicating this information to the refugees. They aren’t taking advantage of our connectedness, not sharing this information with camp administrators, who have cellphones and could take advantage of this information. “If all you do is take the information about where the drunk, high bad guys are and blast it out as a SMS, women when they leave the camps will go north, not south.”

In Mexico last week, Ross learned that no one will inform on drug violence because they’re terrified of being shot in retaliation. We came up with something very straightforward – a system through which people can email or text gang activity to a central website. It will be scrubbed and anonymized, then sent to a website where everyone can see reported activity. And the government has agreed that they will respond swiftly to these reports and post their responses online.

This is chapter one, page one in thinking about how we can use technology in our statecraft. Alec invites us to connect and engage as they write the second page.

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