Alec Ross serves as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where he is tasked with maximizing the potential of technology and innovation in service of America’s diplomatic goals and stewarding Secretary of State Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft agenda. In this role, Alec helps ensure America’s leadership and advances the State Department’s interests on a range of issues from Internet Freedom to disaster response to responding to regional conflicts.
Previously, Alec served as the Convener for Obama for America’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications Policy Committee and served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team.
In 2000, he and three colleagues co-founded the nonprofit organization One Economy and grew it from modest origins in a basement into the world’s largest digital divide organization, with programs on four continents.
He was named the 2010 Middle East/North Africa Technology Person of the Year, cited by the Huffington Post as one of “10 Game Changers in Politics,” named a “game changer” as one of Politico’s “50 Politicos to watch” in 2010, and named one of 40 under 40 leaders in international development. In 2011, he was named one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy Magazine.
Alec has served as a guest lecturer at numerous institutions including the United Nations, Harvard Law School, Stanford Business School, the London School of Economics, and a number of parliamentary bodies. His writing has appeared in publications including the SAIS Review of International Affairs, the NATO Review and the Hague Journal of Diplomacy.
Alec started his career as a sixth grade teacher through Teach for America in inner-city Baltimore where he lives with his wife and their three young children.
Let’s talk about menstruating cows in Africa. Alana Berkowitz wanted to build a program that brings together citizens in Africa and has them build a program around finding technological solutions for themselves, based around a contest, called Apps for Africa.
The winner was iCow, which was an SMS-based app that can be downloaded to the most basic phone and maps menstrual cycles, dairy cycles etc for subsistence-level dairy farmers. They can just use this app to find someone in the region who wants to buy a dairy cow.
You can take a lot from this story. The thing that most strikes me is power. I think about the changing nature of power around the world. If we had tried to do this 5 years ago, we would have had to have the cooperation of a huge telecom company, it would have taken a huge amount of money to develop the app, we would have had to spend as much money on marketing.
But now, you no longer need these resources. Citizens themselves have the ability, the power, that they didn’t have previously. The one thing I’ve learned from my time with Secretary Clinton is that there’s a massive redistribution of global power. From hierarchies to individuals and networks of individuals.
There are four main things I see social media having had an impact on global power structures. Firstly, social media has accelerated movement making, mobilizing.
Secondly, it enriched the information environment. So places historically closed, the access to information was spectacularly different in a short amount of time.
Thirdly, it helped make weak ties stronger for the purposes of exercising discontent.
Lastly, it facilitated leaderless movements.
The same type of networked dynamics that we saw taking place around the world also took place in the US when the SOPA/PIPA debate exploded. For the first time, there was conversation happening.
This isn’t an American critique, it’s to show that this is happening all over the world. In the face of this, there’s an inevitable loss of control and fear of government. This isn’t uncommon. After the printing press was invented, there was about 200 years of litigation around this device, to try and control it.
As citizens become increasingly connected, there’s a defensiveness that comes from governments. We saw this in the Arab Spring. Each country attempted to shut down connection to the internet.
Another page in the “How to be a Dictator” Handbook is censorship. There are sometimes massive investments in increasingly sophisticated mass technologies to monitor information and identify sources of discontent. When things are more calm, it’s about how to arm up for an increased surveillance state.
The 21st Century is a lousy time to be a control freak. Governments don’t like this loss of control. It’s the test of the character of a nation-state to see how they respond to this loss of control. Do you fight it?
I want to give you a few examples of how we’re trying to leverage this positively at the State Department. We’re got a young women running a program virtually to connect them to the state department and be able to work as a “diplomat” around the world.
Another is TechCamp. Why don’t we leverage America’s techies and put them to work for our development goals? We put these TechCamps in place around the world. We’ll identify a challenge and the techies geek-out a solution.
What’s the best way for us to adapt to this world of change? My one piece of advice I’d give to a world leader is that it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that win, but the most adaptable to change.