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.

Lections from Egypt: moving on from prediction to early warning

Daniel Kaufmann had some fun compiling a list of the authoritative commentators that predicted that – unilke in Tunisia – in Egypt the disgruntled population would not take to the street, or anyway not in such a way to threaten the regime. Everybody seems to have fallen for it, from Foreign Policy to the BBC, from Time magazine to the Economist.

Forecasting was always tricky business, and is getting more so. In a society as complex as ours, even the best analyst are lousy at prediction. In an entirely different context, David Lane and others (yours truly included) are suggesting that in some cases prediction might be replaced by a system of early warning, that spots emergent social dynamics in its early stages, when correction is still possible. This would be done by combining and filtering large masses of data, many of which collected on the web. The idea — which might ring familiar to those who use the Internet as a social filtering device for information, is that the global conversation is an entity that exists at a level superior to ours, and as such might know things that none of us, mere participants, know.

To describe this hypothetical system, David likes to quote post-marketing surveillance on pharmaceuticals after the Thalidomide scandal. This drug used to be prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s, and it could induce terrible deformities in newborn children, but only combining in exquisitely nonlinear ways with other agents: it was cleared for rollout because the lab tests did not allow to discover the problem. It was the doctors treating the mothers of deformed or sick children that discovered, in the ocean of statistical noise, the weak signal of taking Thalidomide during pregnancy. As a consequence of this story, pharmaceutical companies now work with physicians to spot correlations to weak to be spotted in the lab, but that might be revealed by processing the mass of data obtaiend by tapping all doctors.

It is a fascinating topic, at least for me. And — going back to Egypt — it leads to an unexpected conclusion: it suggests another way that Wikileaks might be a good thing. Laks feed the global conversation, and thereby increase the probability that bloggers, citizens and activists poolf their knowledge and discover emergent trends. It has been argued that Wikileaks is nefarious, because it might hinder the work of diplomacy: but without better analysis, diplomacy cannot do an acceptable job anyway.