In the News: Boe Forum speaker sees 'good, ill in digital frontier'

More than 2,000 people filled the Elmen Center last night to hear Jared Cohen, former advisor to Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, author, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and director of Google Ideas, speak at the 2012 Boe Forum on Public Affairs, presented by the Center for Western Studies.

Read and watch reaction to his address from the Argus Leader and KELO-TV:

Boe Forum: Seeing Good, Ill in Digital Frontier
Google Guru Says Nations Must Ready for Change
By Cody Winchester, Argus Leader

Institutions need to prepare for the promise and peril of the digital age, a public policy expert said Thursday night at Augustana College.

“Technology empowers people both for good and for ill,” said Jared Cohen, a former U.S. State Department adviser and director of Google Ideas (a “think/do” tank), speaking at the annual Boe Forum.

Cohen said the spread of disruptive technologies, particularly in the developing world, will be a net benefit for society if governments, businesses and citizens leverage them for good.

In a world where 4.2 billion people own a toothbrush but 5.2 billion own a mobile phone, the virtual world now dominates foreign policy, whether the issue is revolutions or terrorism or traditional statecraft, Cohen said.

Jared Cohen at Augustana

Jared Cohen talked with journalism students from Augustana and area high schools yesterday afternoon.

“It’s the very first technology in the world’s history that allows you to develop, own and disseminate content without an intermediary,” he said. The power of this technology was illustrated perfectly in the Arab Spring uprising, he said.

One thing he learned while traveling in Iran: Activists are adaptive. As the protests intensified and the government shut down Internet and cellular service, young activists employed the same peer-to-peer networks once used for planning parties and landing dates to organize protests and circumvent police surveillance, he said.

One takeaway from this, he said, is that technology companies need to recognize their responsibility to the next 5 billion customers in the developing world anticipated to come online in the next decade. Companies need to understand their challenges and innovate accordingly.

A great example of how digital technology affects foreign policy is the video Neda, a young Iranian protestor whose shooting death was captured on cellphone video, smuggled out of the country and then uploaded to YouTube.

Within two hours, Cohen said, presidents and prime ministers across the world were being briefed on the contents of the video, and ultimately it was a turning point in the West’s stance toward Iran.

Jared Cohen at Augustana

Augustana senior Alan Thompson interviews Jared Cohen yesterday afternoon.

“Remove mobile phones from the equation ... and ask yourself the question of whether anyone in Iran would have been able to change the policy of the United States government,” he said.

Tony Haga, chairman of the Center for Western Studies, introduced Cohen with the now-famous anecdote of how Cohen persuaded his friend Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, to delay maintenance that would have shut down access to the site in Iran just as the post-election protests in 2009 were beginning to bloom.

“I almost got fired for this,” Cohen said.

The move infuriated some inside the Obama administration, given its official stance of noninterference, but Cohen said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later praised the tactic as a good example of 21st-century statecraft.

From here out, he said, revolutions will accelerate much more quickly but will be harder to see through because there’s not enough time for promising activists to develop leadership skills.

“Revolutions of the future will develop a lot of celebrities ... but at the end of the day, you need someone to sit down and write a constitution,” he said. “These revolutions aren’t producing new leaders.”
Terrorists adapt

Terrorists also are finding ways to exploit new technologies to their benefit — they have to, if they want to stay relevant, Cohen said. He said the prospect of radical groups combining cyber attacks with physical terrorist strikes “is what keeps me up at night more than anything.”

But he’s optimistic that the same connectivity that allows terrorists to plan more sophisticated attacks also widens the room for error.

Cohen told the story of how a friend of his, a Navy SEAL working in Pakistan, was part of a team hunting a terrorist who had been very careful to cover his tracks in real life. But then he called a relative in Afghanistan to let him know he was coming to the wedding, and the military was able to trace the call from there.

“To put it in financial terms, I’m short on terrorists thriving in the new digital age, and I’m long on terrorists suffering,” he said.

Cohen’s research on radicalization has led him to interview terrorists from al-Qaida, the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups. He has written books on jihad and genocide and has a forthcoming volume about technology and foreign policy co-written with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Stranded in Egypt

This was Cohen’s first trip to South Dakota, but he said he had one thing in common with the group of Augustana College students who were in Egypt last year when pro-democracy activists began the series of protests that resulted in the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

We were both stranded in Egypt,” he said, “and our parents were worried about us.”

Senior Hannah Kuelbs, a senior communications and music major, was one of them.

“I saw what social media did for the Egyptians there,” she said, adding that Cohen’s message underscored the importance of emerging technologies to developing nations.

The hour-and-a-half-long speech was a good reminder of the accelerating pace of technological change, said senior Thad Titze, president of the Augustana Student Association.

“People my age, we know how to research online, we now how to use databases,” said the 21-year-old Watertown native. “But with social media, we use it every day, we know how to put information in. My main question is, how do we make constructive use of those (technologies), not only in our little campus but in the wider world?”

Technology Highlights Augustana College Forum
By Kelly Bartnick

He's known as the young gun of foreign relations. Thursday night former advisor to the Secretary of State and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, Jared Cohen, brought his message of technology and foreign policy to South Dakota.

Watch the Video from KELO-TV

“It couldn't happen at a better time,” Jill Matson said as she waited to walk into Augustana College’s Elmen Center to hear Cohen speak. “Two days after the election results are in,” Matson said.

Cohen headlined Augustana College's Boe Forum on Public Affairs. The forum has hosted dignitaries from General Colin Powell and Desmond Tutu to Madeline Albright.

Cohen, 30, is the youngest presenter in the Forum’s 17 year history.

“The past couple of years we've had some older ones and they said it was harder to communicate with them. But they really enjoyed the talk with him,” Augustana College student Courtney Moore said.

“It's always fun to gather for a Boe Forum because we know we're going to learn something tonight,” Augustana College President Rob Oliver told the crowd as he introduced Cohen.

When it comes to foreign policy and technology, Cohen's youth gives him credibility. And it's Cohen's experience as Advisor to the Secretary of State and Member of the Council on Foreign Relations that makes him an expert on technology as it relates to democracy and world peace.

“I've looked at it as a writer and a student. I've looked at it advising two Secretaries of State. And now I look at it from the world's largest search engine,” Cohen said.

And his message here: if you think technology isn't changing things, you're wrong. The number of mobile devices is exploding globally. Cohen said the greatest increases are those countries facing great social and economic challenges.

“4.8 billion people in the world own a tooth brush. 5.2 billion people in the world own a cell phone,” Cohen said.

Cohen served as the youngest person ever on the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff from 2006 to 2010. He now works for Google as the director of Google Ideas.

PHOTO AT TOP: TJ Nelson, Augustana class of 2005.