Using Digital Technology for Diplomacy

Over the past two years, the State Department has been working to upgrade its digital platforms.  This work is being accomplished under the tutelage of Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Ross’s efforts are an important component of the department’s agenda, which aims to harness communications technology and information networks to address the US’s international challenges, including:

  • aiding democratic movements,
  • providing disaster relief, and
  • alleviating poverty

Examples of specific digital technology efforts include:

  • using mobile text-message programs to raise money and coordinate aid following Haiti’s devastating earthquake;
  • joining with Mexican officials to set up an anonymous mobile-phone-based tip line in Juarez, a city ravaged by drug violence;
  • working to build an online map of land mines in Colombia;
  • exploring ways to help bring payment systems to famine-stricken East Africa; and
  • helping Arab Spring protesters speak out against and ultimately topple dictators in the Middle East.

But there is also a downside to digital diplomacy.  According to Sam Gustin writing in Time magazine (12 Sep 2011):

The sinister use of technology by authoritarian regimes has prompted criticism of Ross and his colleagues’ faith in the democratizing power of technology.  “This is religion, not social science,” says Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion:  The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.  He argues that the Internet is becoming less and less open as entrenched players, including states and corporations, move to protect their interests.  “My main criticism of the State Department is that their naive embrace of Internet freedom is just not realistic,” he says.  “As noble as this effort is, they are fighting an unwinnable fight.”

But Ross claims that he doesn’t take a “naive” view of the power of information networks.  “Technology takes on the values and intentions of the users,” he contends.  “Governments that try to use these networks to control their people are ultimately swimming against the tide of history.”  And as summarized by Gustin, “technology is just a tool, for good or ill.  It’s up to people to decide how to use it.”

This entry was posted in Books, Organizational Dynamics, Technology, transhumanism. Bookmark the permalink.

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