Tag Archives: Wikileaks

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. 

Professor Keane’s tractionless democracy

Recently I have had the good fortune of listening to a conference by political theorist John Keane. In a nutshell, what he told us is this after 1945 democracy started to morph into a model that he calls monitory democracy. In this model, the control functions are not only allocated to the legislative power and variously representative institutions arranged in the classic checks and balances scheme, but are also arrogated by citizens through media. The present phase of media democratization and pulverization is greatly increasing the effectiveness of this second type of control; furthermore, it is taking it to a global level, thanks to Internet-native organizations like Wikileaks, that have no national allegiance. The presentation’s key slide was the image you see above, with Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. Keane used this image as an allegory of monitory democracy: with many ties, though each one is hair thin, the Leviathan can be immobilized.

With all due respect, I find this model unconvincing. Firstly, it is inadequate as a positive model: it does not describe reality accurately. According to many thinkers (including Clay Shirky, extensively quoted by Keane himself), the main novelty of the networked society is not an augmented ability for monitoring and blocking (though that is there too), but an augmented ability for barn raising on an unprecedented scale. Granted, the Internet gave us a great many blog that can sustain prolonged wrangles with public authorities on very specific issues, like no instantiation of traditional media could ever do. But above all it gave us Wikipedia, Ushahidi, Katrinalist/Person Finder and many more tools for building commons. This is no patch: it opens up radically new paths for development.

Secondly, monitory democracy is inadequate as a normative model: it’s not nearly all we need. We are faced with life-and-death challenges: contain global warming, redesign the social contract to make it acceptable for the young generations, bring finance back under control. To make a credible attempt to win them we are going to need effective, resourceful, proactive governance. Like poor tied-down Gulliver, Keane’s democracy feels horribly tractionless: think a car with strong, highly sensitive brakes and a comparatively very feeble engine. Personally, I find that the Internet’s greatest gift is that it increases our power to act collectively, not that it decreases it. By collaborating with them, we can empower institutions, keep them in check if they go bad, and help steering them, all rolled in one package. It would be irresponsible not to use this gift for the survival and thrival of the species. Even Lilliputians came to sense and freed Gulliver, harnessing his giant strength to destroy the menacing fleet of Blefuscu. I hope and believe we will have the same sense.

Lezioni dall’Egitto: dalle previsioni all’early warning

Daniel Kaufmann si è divertito a elencare gli autorevoli commentatori che hanno previsto che, a differenza che in Tunisia, in Egitto il malcontento della popolazione non ci sarebbe stato, e comunque non avrebbe messo in seria difficoltà il governo. Ci sono cascati tutti, da Foreign Policy alla BBC, da Time all’Economist.

Fare previsioni è sempre stato difficile, e lo diventa sempre di più. In una società così complessa come la nostra, anche gli analisti migliori sono pessimi previsori. In un contesto diverso, con David Lane, stiamo ipotizzando che in alcuni casi le previsioni si possano sostituire con un sistema di early warning che individui le dinamiche sociali emergenti al loro stadio iniziale, quando si può ancora intervenire. Questo si farebbe combinando e filtrando grandi masse di dati, molti dei quali raccolti sul web. L’idea, che suonerà familiare a chi usa Internet come meccanismo di filtraggio sociale per le informazioni, è che la conversazione globale sia un’entità di livello superiore, che sa delle cose che nessuno di noi che vi partecipiamo può sapere.

Per descrivere questo ipotetico sistema, David fa sempre l’esempio della sorveglianza post-marketing introdotta nel mercato dei farmaci dopo lo scandalo del Talidomide. Questo farmaco veniva usato dalle donne incinte negli anni Cinquanta, e poteva indurre terribili deformità nei neonati, ma solo combinandosi in modo nonlineare con altri fattori; fu messo in commercio perché i test di laboratorio non permisero di scoprire il problema. Furono i medici curanti delle madri che avevano generato bambini malformati a scoprire, nell’oceano di rumore statistico, il debole segnale dell’assunzione di Talidomide durante la gravidanza. Ora le case farmaceutiche lavorano con i medici per cercare correlazioni statisticamente molto deboli, ma che è possibile scoprire facendo ricorso alla massa di dati ottenuta dal mettere insieme le conoscenze di tutti i medici.

È un argomento affascinante, almeno per me. E – tornando all’Egitto – ha anche una conseguenza inaspettata: che acquisisce ancora più importanza sociale il lavoro di Wikileaks. I leaks alimentano la conversazione globale, e così aumentano la probabilità che bloggers, cittadini e attivisti mettano insieme le loro conoscenze e scoprano tendenze emergenti. È stato detto che Wikileaks è dannosa, perché ostacola il lavora della diplomazia: ma con un’analisi così carente, viene da chiedersi come è possibile che le diplomazie possano compiere un lavoro accettabile.