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Saturday, March 14, 2015

App Pupil

An interesting article, read against the fuss over the she-Clinton's emails, suggests, once again, that she- and Bubba, preparing to offer themselves again as a New and Improved Twofer- believes in the magical realism of technology and cleverness:
Clinton’s utopian faith depends on fantasies of a reified technology, unmoored from class and power relations and operating autonomously as a global force for good. Early in her tenure at the State Department, she decided to ‘take a page from Steve Jobs and “think different” about the role of the State Department in the 21st century’. This led to the birth of 21st-century statecraft, which aimed to address what Richard Holbrooke, then Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, identified as a fundamental anomaly in the struggle against terrorism: the most powerful nation on earth was ‘losing the communications battle to extremists who are living in caves’. As part of Clinton’s ‘smart power’ agenda, the US would reclaim online space by creating alliances with high-tech entrepreneurs.
The crucial figure in this project was Jared Cohen, a Condoleezza Rice protégé who served as a senior adviser in both the Rice and Clinton State Departments. Cohen’s chief achievement was to promote the power of social media in the Iranian elections of June 2009. Cohen privately ‘reached out’, in Clinton’s words, to Jack Dorsey of Twitter, persuading him to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown in order to keep the Twittersphere open for the dissidents protesting against government electoral fraud. Clinton and Allen and Parnes all treat Cohen’s intervention as a mischievous caper – going outside normal channels, secretly enlisting business in the service of government – that turned out brilliantly. A few months later, Cohen and Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs that promoted the idea of ‘coalitions of the connected’ to fight alongside the military in the struggle against jihadism. In late 2010, Schmidt hired Cohen to head Google Ideas, a ‘think/do tank’ in New York. His career trajectory reflected the new intimacy of Washington and Silicon Valley. 
Still the question remained: how to put the undisciplined geniuses of the tech world at the service of the sclerotic State Department (and vice versa)? According to Allen and Parnes, Clinton created an ‘innovation team’ charged with projects ‘as benign as setting up social media accounts for State in various countries and as insidious as providing tech tools and training for rebels in Middle Eastern countries’. Indeed, these journalists claim, ‘innovation … tied together her ambitions as a diplomat, her chances of running a successful campaign for the presidency, and her religion-inspired commitment to social justice.’ Once thought a Luddite, she fell in love with her iPad. ‘Use me like an app!’ she told an audience of high-tech company executives, ‘eliciting a round of laughter’. She believed that tech CEOs could collaborate with State Department officials in offering carrots and sticks to Bashar Assad: when he refused to co-operate, the State Department waived sanctions for Skype, allowing the company to operate in Syria in the hope that it could help bring the regime down.  
The futility of that hope epitomised the general failure of 21st-century statecraft, at least when its practitioners tried to use technology to get round inequalities of power. The magic of social media did nothing to change the outcome of the Iranian elections; Skype didn’t bring down Assad. Technological panaceas proved inadequate elsewhere as well. In Congo, Cohen and Alec Ross, who headed Clinton’s ‘innovation team’, brought high-tech solutions to intractable bureaucratic problems: a mobile app for the military’s muddled pay system, a text-message warning system for refugee camps threatened by militias. In both cases, as in Syria and Iran, fantasies about the power of technology proved unable to overcome existing structures of political, military and legal power. This would be a pattern in the Clinton State Department: rhetoric would outstrip results.

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