He is one of the 100 most influential people on the planet, according to Time magazine. As a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, he used to be the third most followed person in the United States government. He has been described as having “a fascination with life at the intersection of technology and geopolitics”. He is the director of Google Ideas, a “think/do tank”. At just 31,
Jared Cohen is definitely an over-achiever. Weekend Review caught up with him for an exclusive interview following the publishing of his latest book, “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business”, co-authored with Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google. Excerpts:
How do technology and diplomacy intersect?
It’s more about how technology and geopolitics intersect. We think of diplomacy as something that governments do, whereas geopolitics is more the trends around the world. If you think about five billion new people connecting to the internet in the next decade, most of them are doing so in parts of the world where there is conflict, instability and where the governance model is autocratic and repressive. So, many of the world’s challenges that dominate diplomatic circles or geopolitical trends come from the types of environments that are coming online. Every single country and citizen in the world is going to have to increasingly spilt their time between the physical and digital domain. Essentially, it’s not that technology or cyberspace is some parallel universe that operates tangentially from the world we know; it is simply a new front in the international system.
Google Ideas is seen as being close to the US State Department.
I went to North Korea and the State Department publicly came out against my trip. We [Google Ideas] are clearly independent. Everything that we do, we do in partnership with civil society organisations on the ground, citizens on the ground, we talk to governments … we talk to everybody. While Google is an expert on technology, it is not an expert on geopolitical trends. There are lot of different experts out there.
Google Ideas has increasingly looked at resolving the issue of violent extremism. You recently held a summit in Dublin.
Yes. We wanted to show how people join [extremist groups]. We wanted to basically remove the religious and ideological mask that is cultivated by violent religious extremists and get to the core of who they are. I have studied this extensively in my past. I have always argued that behind the mask, these are broken souls with dangerous toys. When you talk to gang members on the streets, religious extremists, violent nationalist extremists, and even violent white supremacists … once you get pass their ideology and rhetoric, what you find is that there is a very similar narrative. So in the case of Islamist extremism, it becomes about religion but it started somewhere else.
You’ve covered this aspect in your other book, “The Children of Jihad”, which was based on your travels in the Middle East.
Exactly. So what we [Cohen and Eric Schmidt] spend a lot of our effort doing is trying to increase the number of people who are willing to describe themselves as “former violent extremists”. So, we initially convened 80 out of the woodwork from 40 different countries, including from the Middle East. We have since increased that figure to several hundred. So, we believe that openly “former violent extremists” are some of the most credible people to counter violent extremism since they were once part of it.
How does this fit into the Google Ideas model?
You know, I describe Google Ideas as falling in between core business and philanthropy and feeding into both. One of the things we work very hard to do is to work with our users to make sure they understand what type of content we will take down from YouTube if it’s flagged as inappropriate and encourage them to do so. We do 72 hours of uploads every single minute, so the company cannot pre-screen all of its content. So, we rely on users to flag it. One of the things Google Ideas has done is we have trained former violent extremists in what our content policies are. They can find certain videos that they know promote violence and flag them as inappropriate.
But if you see some of the YouTube videos of the Syrian war, they are horrifying. What is the policy on these?
There is a distinction between — you ought to talk to YouTube folks about this — promoting violence and capturing human rights violations. An interesting YouTube story on Syria is that of a guy in England who goes by the name “Brown Moses”. He was unemployed, and from his couch he went through all these YouTube videos and became an expert on the types of weapons that were being used inside Syria. He was able to break several news stories all from his couch.
You speak about a digital caste system in your book. What exactly do you mean by digital caste system?
Not everybody in the world today is obviously in the same part of the socio-economic pyramid. Unfortunately, a large number of people in the world are living in abject poverty. One of the arguments that we make is that everybody’s life gets a little better with a smartphone but technology doesn’t fully bridge the divide. So people who are poor may come out of poverty but it will not necessarily be because of technology. So we argue everybody’s life gets better because you have access to more information, [hence there is] more empowerment and you get more connectivity. You engage beyond the borders of your particular community. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t solve the problem of lack of fresh water, lack of adequate health care, etc. What we mean when we say “digital caste system” is the people at the top of the socio-economic pyramid will get the best gadgets and the best connectivity. And people living in most impoverished parts of the world … they will be connected but their connectivity will look different from the people at the top. They may not have as much bandwidth, their devices may not be as sophisticated, they will not be able to do all the things that people in the developed world do but they will still be able to do a lot. So everybody gets connected but connectivity looks different to different people. Everybody benefits.
You also refer to the “Balkanisation of the internet”. Please explain.
States will try to replicate the laws of the physical world in cyberspace. But this will prove to be difficult because cyberspace is a global domain. So in the book, what we fear and talk about is that states will seek to filter out content online so that the online world looks like the physical world. With regard to states that are autocratic this is the problem because they essentially take their restrictions on civil liberties in the physical domain to cyberspace. What we worry about in this situation is that autocratic states will band together to edit the web in collaboration. So we worry about the collective editing of the web.
Hasn’t the internet reached a stage where this sort of thing is not possible anymore?
Well it is possible right now, it just doesn’t happen. You have many autocratic countries that filter the internet.
But they just can’t control it the way they control the physical world.
We talked about autocratic states trying to do this. We don’t necessarily make the argument that they will be successful. The reason we write about this in our book is that we don’t want them to be successful at it. We don’t believe in filtering and censoring the internet. We hope that by talking about some of the things that autocratic nations will do, the world will be able to push back on this.
Google Ideas is called a “think/do tank”.
We actually built it; we have engineers. There is no shortage of think-tanks that make policy prescriptions or recommendations. That is not what we are trying to do … what we are trying is to demonstrate the value of technology in tackling some of the toughest human challenges and build products that illustrate what we mean. On the “think” side what we do often is to convene experts. On the “do” side, we build products, and work with existing products that eat into some of the core products of the company. The distinction is the ability to leverage engineers to build things.
You came to prominence during the presidential polls in Iran in 2009. You had Twitter postpone its shutdown for maintenance and the Obama administration was not necessarily supportive of your move.
My boss Hillary Clinton was supportive of me.
It was at that time that you were the third most followed person on Twitter in the administration.
Yes. But you have to understand that at that time people really didn’t understand the medium. So they didn’t necessarily know what Twitter, YouTube, Facebook were in the government. Obviously that has now changed.
Yes, now it is an essential tool for governments.
Yes, but the key is whether governments go beyond just using the technology to communicate and advocate policy. When people think of digital diplomacy, they think of government tweeting. It is not what it is. That is public diplomacy. The way to think about technology is to get to a point where we don’t talk separately about technology. Where we don’t talk about how can technology be used to counter violent extremism. We just talk about countering violent extremism. We accept how relevant technology is to everything. Name any issue in the world, I can tell you how technology is intertwined with it. I can tell you how technology will make it better. How it can make it worse. It needs to be part of everything that we do, whether you are a government or a company or a citizen. When I am speaking at universities, I always tell graduates that you are the first generation that’s being brought up with high prevalence of technology; your comparative advantage is you will know more about technology than the people you work for. Regardless of what fields you get into, that matters.
What is your take on the recent Iranian election?
Many people make the argument that whoever gets elected president in Iran has very little constitutional power. And it doesn’t matter. Normally I would agree. This one might be a little different, not in the short term but in the long term. All the last four presidents of Iran have served two terms each. Given that these are not free and fair elections, we must assume that whoever the Supreme Leader chooses will serve two terms [Note: This interview was done before the elections in Iran]. You have to ask yourself the question whether the Supreme Leader will live through two terms of the president. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that there is a reasonable chance, given his health and his age, that you may have a change in the Supreme Leader while the present president is in office. There is certainly a precedent with [Ayotollah] Khamenei himself, going from being president to Supreme Leader of Iran. My point is that this latest election matters a little bit more, not because of the presidency but because of the past trend of a president becoming the Supreme Leader.
The Arab Spring happened at the peak of the social media revolution. How do you see the role of technology in the uprisings?
We argue in the book that revolutions are easier to start but harder to finish. Technology can be useful to organise a large number of people online and offline against the common goal of getting a particular dictator out of power. But at the end of the day, somebody still has to run for president with a different last name and deliver for the population. What we learn from the Arab Spring is that technology cannot create leaders and institutions that are not there. The traditional attributes of a revolution are still at its core. What happened in Libya, Egypt and Yemen is that you had large numbers of people overthrow a particular government and yet what is in place right now is mixed. In Libya, there is terrible violence, Egypt has been extremely unstable. In Yemen, one can actually argue it is going better than expected. Without real and new leaders you can’t complete a revolution. If you look at what Poland had with Lech Walesa and what South Africa had with Nelson Mandela … you don’t necessarily have it here.
Are you optimistic about the Arab Spring, if you can still call it that.
It is not that I am optimistic or pessimistic. There are new public figures on the scene; it’s going to take about a decade for some of them to actually prove themselves as leaders. There will be several cycles of leadership in each of these countries before these revolutions sort themselves out. They will be going on for some time.