Jared Cohen

By Deane Barker on November 9, 2012

Last night, I went to my alma mater to hear Jared Cohen speak.  Cohen is only 30-years-old (!), but is a veteran of U.S. foreign policy, serving in the State Department under both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.  He’s also well known as an expert on how social media affects governments and foreign policy.

I was a Political Science major at Augustana College (I had planned to be a lawyer), and Cohen is right at the intersection of foreign policy and technology, so I couldn’t miss hearing him talk.

Remember how the Internet was all abuzz with how social media aided The Green Revolution in Iran?  Cohen was right in the middle of that, it turns out.

From his Wikipedia page:

In the midst of the June 2009 post-election protests in Iran, Cohen sought to support the uprising by reaching out to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, urging the company to reschedule its planned maintenance of the website so that Iranians could keep tweeting. His reasoning was that, given that many other forms of communication had been blocked or shut down, Twitter was one of the few ways for people inside of Iran to get information to the outside world. He also considered it an important way for people around the world to join the protests by disseminating proxy and circumvention tools.

Then, two years ago Cohen teamed up with Google’s Eric Schmidt to write “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power” for Foreign Affairs magazine.

Here’s the first two sentences of that article.

The advent and power of connection technologies — tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another — will make the twenty-first century all about surprises. Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority.

The Arab Spring started a few weeks after that article was written.

Last night, Cohen discussed the role of technology in three areas:

  1. Revolutions
  2. Terrorism
  3. International Relations

Some random notes from the talk:

  • 4.2 billion people in the world have a toothbrush.  5.2 billion have a smartphone.
  • The fact that someone filmed the death of Neda then uploaded it to YouTube forced the U.S. to declare a position on Iran.  Think about that for a second – an anonymous person using a mobile phone and social media forced a sitting U.S. president to take a position on a foreign revolution.
  • In many countries in the Middle East, smartphones are highly-correlated with civil liberties like free speech.  Smartphones are largely unregulated and have become a place where the populace can exercise their rights.  Without a smartphone, many people lose many rights and liberties.
  • The shutting down of the mobile networks during Egypt’s uprising backfired on Hosni Mubarak.  In doing so, he angered the population considerably, and many people joined the protests because without Internet access, they felt blind to what was going on so they ventured out just to communicate with other people.
  • Drones are moving downmarket.  You can make your own localized drone with a remote control helicopter now.
  • Cyber-terrorism and physical terrorism are going to start being coordinated.  A physical terrorist attack like a bombing will be followed by a cyber attack designed to impede the emergency response.
  • Countries will start filtering the Internet in such a way that it will balkanize.  They will group together to filter the Internet so that it will segregate into “blocs,” not unlike geopolitical groupings of countries.  Like international travel, you may have to “apply” to travel to the Internet of another region.

It was a great talk overall about how technology – especially mobile technology – is fundamentally changing the way nations relate to each other.  Cohen is currently chairing Google Ideas and writing a book with Eric Schmidt.