Google Ideas director Jared Cohen emphasized technology’s present and future role as a tool that “should go hand-in-hand” with foreign policy Thursday, Nov. 8, in the Elmen Center at the annual Boe Forum on Public Affairs.
“In our future, whether you’re a state, a citizen, a company, we’re going to increasingly split our time between the physical and virtual worlds, and how we find that balance is going to determine our standing and power in the future,” said Cohen, former advisor to Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.
The Internet, he said, was developed by and for the western world, and two billion are online now. And more people are logging on.
“In the next 10 years… five billion people are connecting to the Internet in parts of the world ridden with the greatest number of the challenges,” Cohen said.
Whereas Unites States citizens might use Bluetooth to talk and drive, Iranians employ it as a way to snag a date or plan underground parties, according to Cohen.
“The average American probably uses only five percent of the features on his or her smart phone,” Cohen said. “The Iranians read the instruction manuals many times over; they’re constantly looking for ways to actually leverage their smart phones as a way to get around restrictions on civil liberties.”
In fact, Cohen reasons that the Arab Spring began in 2009 when the Iranian government cut citizen access to the Internet and mobile networks, part of a series of events referred to as the Green Revolution. Cohen said he almost got fired from the State Department when he asked Twitter to postpone its regularly scheduled maintenance so Iranians could continue tweeting during the revolution.
U.S. foreign policy toward Iran changed, Cohen said, once a bystander with video technology captured the murder of a young girl in Tehran and sent the video to others until it left the country and was posted on YouTube within two hours.
“That moment marked the incidence in which the U.S. government went from no meddling to harsh criticism of what the regime was doing,” Cohen said.
Technology is both a tool and a realm, according to Joe Dondelinger, professor of government and international affairs, who said that humans have used land, sea, air and space to their advantage or to fight, and thinks that cyberspace is next in line.
“You can use it for getting closer to people or you can use it to fight,” Dondelinger said. “(Cohen) is thinking fairly realistically about the various possibilities of how this could be used or abused.”
In the last four years, Cohen said, revolutions, terrorism and bio-extremism and turbulent relations between states, which also include combat and war, have been the top foreign policy challenges. He pointed out that although technology can accelerate revolutions, like in Iran, they would likely be harder to finish due to “retarded leadership development,” mentioning that the fill-ins for autocratic leaders like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt are often celebrity types that aren’t up for sitting down to write a constitution.
According to Cohen, while terrorists might thrive short-term in their capacity to attack in both the physical and virtual world, terrorists won’t fare so well in the digital age in the long-term. The technology that helps them attack will leave virtual fingerprints, making it tough for terrorist networks to succeed by utilizing technology.
In the past, terrorists were interrogated with a chance of obtaining information. Not anymore.
“Now when you get them, you get their SIM card and you get their entire network,” Cohen said.
Cohen assured the audience that such technological advancements are different from generational ones like the printing press, the fax machine or the Cold War.
“This generation of technology is the first in the world’s history that allows you to develop, own and disseminate your own content without having to rely on an intermediary,” Cohen said.
A pill that diagnoses your illness and sends it to your smart phone so you can find the right doctor with the closest appointment is just a handful of years away, according to Cohen, who says that voice recognition, almost instantly translated conversations and holographic technology are also in the near future.
Just how such technology will change life at Augustana interests senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college Susan Hasseler.
“What could that mean for our learning and our study abroad?” Hasseler asked. “What could that mean for us connecting with universities all over the world?”
Senior computer science major Tyler Schultz agreed that Cohen’s message was geared toward a younger generation. He speculates that much of what he’s learning now will be “obsolete” in five to 10 years, but remains positive about his ability to remain a student even after graduation, continually educating himself on the newest technologies.
“Because it’s a liberal arts education, the goal is to teach you how to learn,” Schultz said. “That’s a skill you need in the future.”
Cohen’s biography boasts degrees from Stanford and Oxford, adjunct fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations and publication of two books, One Hundred Days of Silence and Children of Jihad.
Hasseler, however, was most impressed by his experiential learning tendencies, and described Cohen as “inspiring” and as a “voracious explorer.”
“He took full advantage of every learning opportunity he had and just keeps exploring and keeps taking risks and keeps trying and learning new things,” Hasseler said.
In a student press conference before the forum, Cohen suggested that students keep open minds regarding their passions and future plans and aim to collect experiences rather than lines on a résumé.
“Be as interesting as you possibly can,” Cohen said. “Do that by being exposed to people, ideas and places; that’s ultimately the most valuable currency that you have as a young person in the world, when you have interesting stories, perspectives and experiences and a sort of youthful energy and spirit.”