Author Archives: Alberto

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Brexit: we keep building

In 1941, as Hitler’s troops set fire to the continent, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Ursula Hirschmann had been confined by the Italian fascist regime to a small town called Ventotene. And they wrote this:

“The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy […]; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power […]. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”.[2]

Today is a sad day. But it is not the end. In a far worse situation, Spinelli, Rossi and Hirschmann kept working for a free, peaceful, united Europe. So will I, in love, and for the interest of my Italian-Swedish family, my Belgian residency, my Romanian, German, English, Swedish, Scottish, Icelandic and American business partners. Good luck and a strong hug to all of our friends in the United Kingdom.

We keep building. That’s the way.

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Folk’s Law and the return of the Dinosaurs

Even after we all left Modena City Ramblers, Cisco, Giovanni and I have remained friends. We shared things that everyone shares with their friends: dinners, jokes, a few intense discussions.

There is one discussion that keeps resurfacing despite the passing years. What is left of the years we spent, militating in the same band, the 90s of the last century? The antimafia movement. The slaughter of Justices Falcone and Borsellino. The Clean Hands investigation. The first center-left government in Italy’s republican history. Europe, slowly but surely integrating and expanding eastwards. For us (and many others) the discovery of our own ancestral culture, its peasant roots and eternal aspiration to social justice. All these came to pass, and were important. For us, they still are. And yet, they feel so far away in time and way of thinking.

Take me. I left my career in music, and now I work on open government and social innovation. I move between the hacker scene and inter-governmental institutions, between science and radical social practices. No one, in my current crowd, ever speaks of the stories that have made our history (“ours” in the sense of Italians at the threshold of age fifty, and “ours” also in the sense of Cisco’s, Giovanni’s, and mine). I now find these stories difficult to tell. The world has changed in twenty years, so much that they are all but unintelligible. Hell, we were there, and we are not even sure how they ended. Did we win? Did we lose? What is left?

And yet, tell the tale we must. This I have learned in my fifty years of life, twenty-five of them around folk music. When we were young men, Cisco, Giovanni and I hungered for stories. We would harass our older relatives to better understand what went on during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Italy. We would grill our slightly older friends to relive the rebellion of the 1970s through their eyes.

Now we are the older relatives and friends. We have the stories. We have daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, younger friends who want to hear them. Folk’s Law says we have no excuses: we must tell them.

Tell them how? This is easy. Our common language is music. So, Gio has once again embraced his guitar. I am blowing the dust off my accordion. Cisco has taken some time off his solo career. We are making a new album, the first one together in this millennium, and presumably the last.

Giovanni has written a volley of songs. They are beautiful. They are the songs you can write only at this age. He captured the mix of disenchantment and pride that I feel among people of my age, and from my native country. The disenchantment is for the many battles we have fought and lost; the pride is for finding each other still standing, despite everything, scarred but not surrendered. The album will be titled The dynosaurs, because that’s how we feel. Strange creatures from a distant past, who left mysterious footprints in the world in which we all live today. Two old friends from the times of Modena City Ramblers, Kaba Cavazzuti and Massimo Giuntini, help us in their capacity of artistic producers.

Obviously, The dinosaurs will be a project with very little commercial appeal. An acoustic album made by fifty year old men, who do not perform in talent shows? Seriously, who the hell cares. We are not even bothering to go talk to record labels. We will produce it through a crowdfunding campaign, and some of our own money. Folk music saved our lives twenty-five years ago. It’s time we give back.

More information is here (in Italian).

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Fool me twice, shame on me: the return of Alec Ross

UPDATE June 20th. I have realised I may have been too emotional about this. I have decided to try to learn more about what the Diplomacy 2.0 vision looks like in 2016, and then make up my mind.

This post is a part of a series of reflections aimed at cutting back on the noughties’ hype about the wonderful changes of modern technology. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but, in retrospect, we seem to have gotten a little overenthusiastic. I am as guilty as anyone else, and am now trying to regain a more critical perspective (example).

2009, remember? A charismatic, charming, pre-drone strikes and let-Guantanamo-be Barack Obama sat in the White House, heralding a new era of Internet-powered transparency, accountability and collaboration. It was government 2.0’s finest hour.

In 2009, a man named Alec Ross visited Italy on behalf of the State Department. He toured the country, and everywhere he went he asked to meet the local bloggers. The city authority in Bologna invited me to one such meeting. Wide-eyed with admiration at the cool of the Obama administration,  a half dozen bloggers attended. Relaxed and confident, Ross looked and spoke more like a social media marketing early mover than like a diplomat. He also seemed to have no agenda: he just wanted State Department to be friends with the bloggers. That seemed very forward thinking. It still does. He called it “diplomacy 2.0”. Transparency and openness are in the interest of diplomats, he explained. The more clearly a country communicates, the better its positions can be understood, even more so in a media landscape where bloggers were becoming the main opinion makers. There will still be classified information, but the new normal was to be one of openness.

What a great concept, we all thought. How far behind we are lagging in our own country. Then CableLeaks happened, and State Department did not like transparency so much anymore. The administration maintained on the one hand that there was no dirty secret to uncover in the cables, and on the other hand that people had no business knowing what was in there. The pool of highly prestigious newspapers redacting the leaks before publication (The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Paìs, Le Monde…) were told in no uncertain terms to hand over the material. It all ended in a major mess, involving Amazon, Mastercard, Paypal, John Perry Barlow and just about any government worth its salt (or not). All this led the Executive Office of the President to circulate a memorandum (January 2011), addressed to every branch of the American government. It is signed by the then-director, of the National Counterintelligence Agency, and comes down to: “are you sure you got your employees on tight lockdown?” My favourite question is this:

Do you use psychiatrist and sociologist to measure: (i) Relative happiness as a means to gauge trustworthiness? (ii) Despondence and grumpiness as a means to gauge waning trustworthiness?

So much for openness.

But why reminesce about this now? Because I made a mistake: I endorsed the Diplomacy 2.0 concept. I tried to convince people I respect that yes, “diplomacy is the prosecution of war by other means” and all that, but you could trust these guys. They were like us. It made so much sense.

And because Mr. Ross is back. He’s got a book out. It’s called “The Industries of the Future”, and it sets itself an ambitious goal:

Leading innovation expert Alec Ross explains what’s next for the world: the advances and stumbling blocks that will emerge in the next ten years, and how we can navigate them.

His 2009 prediction about an open, transparent diplomacy “being next” turned out to be very wrong, as Clay Shirky pointed out. That’s an interesting failure, and we can all learn from it. So I contacted Ross to ask him if I could look forward to a chapter about diplomacy 2.0 being blown to hell by the old guard’s reaction to Wikileaks. His reply:

You can keep waiting. Diplomacy 2.0 is as strong today as ever. And I agree 100% with Clinton on Wikileaks. The wikileaked cables changed nothing. If anything, they showed what an excellent job American diplomats were doing. They did not reveal wrongdoing. They revealed right-doing. (whole discussion at 2016-05-25 17.35, image file)

The discussion that ensued was civilised, but unproductive and unpleasant. Ross insisted on blaming Senator Joe Lieberman, not the Obama administration, for the US reaction to the Cableleaks. Senator Lieberman has his sins to answer for, but this is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. The memorandum quoted above does not come from the U.S. Senate. It comes from a very senior officer in the executive branch. I backed off – we were getting nowhere, and I have no interest in trolling. I was in it for the learning.

Still, I do not think Ross’s position (that everything is smooth sailing) is credible. I don’t think I will be reading this book. It’s not so much the wrong prediction, that happens to everyone, especially experts. It’s the refusal to acknowledge it that I cannot respect. Toeing the party line is just what you do not want in a futurist. Shame: Ross is smart and has been around, but I just cannot bring myself to trust him after this. Fool me once, shame on you. But fool me twice?

Photo credit: Cathy Davey.