Big Think Interview with Alec Ross

Question: How has American diplomacy changed throughout history?

Alec Ross: From the earliest stage of American diplomacy, dating back to the 18th century, it would take weeks for a single piece of correspondence to move from one continent to another. In the days of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson being our ambassadors to France, they would work and they would send correspondence back and by the time they got some feedback it was literally a month later. That pattern largely held until the introduction of the telegraph and telephony, which then shrunk dramatically the amount of time that it took to communicate and that then held until ten years ago when the Internet became a powerful tool that it is today.

So really, I think the major shifts in diplomacy dating back to the 18th century reflect the major shifts in communications technology. And so 50 years ago, I think that there was very little difference between how we conducted our diplomacy and how we did it in the 18th century. And more often than not, [it] was white guys with white shirts and red ties, sitting over mahogany tables, sipping cups of coffee, talking to somebody who looks just like that across the other side of the table. One thing that 21st century statecraft is doing now is changing that engagement from being exclusively government-to-government; [it is] also allowing us now to engage government-to-people, and people-to-people. And so changes in statecraft don’t often happen that often. And it’s only very, very recently that very unsubtle technology driven changes in diplomacy are taking place.

Question: How you are using social media in diplomacy?

Alec Ross: So, I should say first that the use of social media at the State Department and in the Federal Government is very, very new. You know, it is no surprise to anybody that social media was an important part of Barack Obama becoming president. And after he became president, part of what he brought with him was the value of technology as a way to connect people who are traditionally disconnected from Washington, from the policy-making arena. So what we are doing right now is introducing social media both broadly—meaning the White House and the State Department [is] using it as a big blunt instrument to engage with the people [and] the world around big events like the President going to Cairo or something like that. But what is actually every bit as compelling to me is what we are doing on a far more local basis; our embassy in Lusotur, for example, can use social media in Lusotur to engage the people there and create a smaller, more specialized community of engagement, and some conversations that are more organic [and] reflective of what the real local interests and concerns are.

So social media has these two contrasting possibilities; on the one hand, they can help us engage much larger numbers of people than we have traditionally. So our audience really is the six billion people on the planet. But on the other hand, it allows us to engage people much more locally and more organically than perhaps we’d ever done when our communications were driven exclusively out of embassy and company capitals [that were] only dealing with government officials.

Question: How was social media use to promote Obama’s speeches abroad?

Alec Ross: This is amazing. Let me talk about the most recent one in Ghana. One of the things that we did was our embassy in South Africa created a partnership with a mobile-based social networking company through which we solicited questions for the president and comments to get into the White House immediately in advance of the speech. Two hundred thousand questions and comments came in through this mobile-based social network, in advance of the Ghana speech, which is absolutely spectacular.

What we then did is the president answered questions that [the] African journalists selected [and] they were dubbed and translated in a handful of languages in podcasts. And a couple more examples from the Ghana speech because it gets me very excited: one of the things that we did is, a lot of people get their information through SMS in Africa, so we promoted the speech through SMS, and then we would actually take portions of the speech and push them out via SMS networks. This is another case of how the consumption of media differs from one culture to another. So I personally don’t want to get text messages of somebody’s speech. To me, that wouldn't necessarily be particularly compelling. But on the African continent, what we found is the point of fact that this is how a lot of people get their media. And so we took advantage of understanding how people access media and access information there. And we make good use of it.

Then lastly, a lot of what we did is partnered with Africa based social media and said, “Aright, how we can leverage the President’s speech to reach the audiences that you have captured here? What it is about this that is most interesting to you?” And then we work with them. What it did is, it took a speech that normally would have been a “Speech to Ghana” or to the Ghanaian people, and it turned in to a continent-wide phenomenon where we estimate about 40 million people actually heard the speech.

Question: What is the difference between hard power and smart power?

Alec Ross: Yeah. Smart power is using all of the means to engage possible. Hard power is military power, and a lot of what we saw during the Bush administration was the Untied States leading with its military. There are times where it is appropriate to do so. What some of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda did merited a military response in Afghanistan. However, what we can’t always do is just say, “Alright, if we have a problem abroad, let’s call the Defense Department.” That can’t be the only way in which we engage a wider world. So smart power is saying, ‘Alright, let’s think proactively about the world around us and let’s think what tools we have at our disposal’. Yes, there’s defense, but there’s also diplomacy, there’s development, and we don’t need to just engage government-to-government.

One of the things that I think Hilary Clinton did that was compelling in her last trip to India was when she went to Mumbai, three days before she went and saw the Prime Minister. Yes, she valued being able to engage with the Indian government, and the work that she and the State Department did with the Indian government was very important, but so too was the outreach that she did with the Indian entrepreneurs. So, two was the outreach that she did to the Indian NGO sector.

So smart power means that we are not just engaging government-to-government over that proverbial mahogany table with flags in the background, but we are also engaging another country’s academics, its entrepreneurs, and its civil society sector.

Question: Are social media technologies spreading to the developing world?

Alec Ross: That’s a great question. Prior to coming to the State Department, I spent the last ten years of my life working to bridge the Digital Divide. I, like everybody else in the mid and late 90’s, was witnessing this technology driven change in the way we communicated and transacted business, and a handful of friends of mine and I in 2000 started a non-profit called One Economy, the purpose of which was to connect people around the globe to these technologies. We went from four guys in the basement [to] actually being the world’s largest digital provider organization.

One of the things that I’ve seen over the last ten years, and this is working in the non-profit sector, this is not working in government is there is a very, very fast adoption of this technology around the globe. Is it everywhere? No. But it’s increasingly universal. One of the important points that people need to bear in mind is that the way people actually access the network in the developing world may be different than the way people in the United States are accessing the network. There are six billion people on the planet [and] there are also four billion mobile phones. So we can already see right now, in the developing world, people are skipping the desktop as the way in which they access the network and they’re accessing it directly on their handhelds.

One of the places where I am doing a lot of work now is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the poorest places on earth. And one of the things that the State Department is hoping to do there is use telecommunications and technology tools as a way of protecting women, particularly in eastern Congo, who are vulnerable to acts of extreme violence [and] rape. And in examining the feasibility of this, I said, “It sounds great, but is that naïve? Number one, can people use cell phones? Are they using them? What about literacy gaps?” One of the things that I learned was that today, at this moment, 50% of the country—and it is a massive country with a land mass equal to Texas and Alaska combined—50% of the country right now is covered by a wireless signal and fourteen out of every one hundred people in the Congo are already mobile phone subscribers. And one of the things that’s different in the United States is that, in the United States, everybody has their own phone. But in the Congo, it’s normal actually for three or four people to share the same phone. And so if you just do the math—today fourteen out of every 100 people are mobile phone subscribers; if you assume that there are three users per phone, what that means that today, without the United States doing a thing, 42% of the country is already on mobile phones. So [in] one of the poorest regions of the earth, the Congo, we already see that half of the people are connecting to the network. That, for me, is great affirmation that we should be pushing this technologies in the developing world, and we should be thinking about how 21st technology can help solve some of our intractable development challenges.

Will there be places where we go where people simple aren’t using cell phones, where there is no mobile coverage, where the literacy level is such that people just can’t figure it out? Sure. But I think that instead of just waiting for the world to catch up, the United States can play a role and help them to lead. And so I’m looking at the Congo again, 50% of the country is covered today but a study that I saw by Goldman Sachs said that by 2013, 88% of the country would be covered. So part of it makes sense to me, for us to engage now; while the whole world is getting on this technology and figuring it out, how we can use this technology for economic and social good?

Question: Are those in the Third World able to take advantage of technology?

Alec Ross: I think there’s a lot of unintended paternalism when people think about technology. We oftentimes assume that people who are low income or people who are racial minorities are somehow not going to understand technology, and that we need to parcel out giving access to people who are low income or people who are racial minorities. And I think that is just completely contradictory to what all the data and evidence show, which is that it doesn’t matter how much money is in your wallet, it doesn’t matter from where you’ve come.

Young people all around the globe right now has this incredibly intuitive understanding of technology and its power, and so introducing technology into poor communities doesn’t need to be done so paternalistically because, guess what—within a couple of days these fifteen-year-olds are going to be way ahead of you.

That’s one thing that is very important to me—to take some of the paternalism that I think lives in a lot of our development practices, and recognize that, when it comes to introducing technology, when it comes to introducing innovation into poor communities, don’t be too arrogant about it, because the folks there could be a lot quicker with it and a lot smarter about it than you in very short order.

Question: How specifically is social media helping the Third World?

Alec Ross: I think there are a number of examples. One of the problems, particularly in the developing world, is the lack of medical workers. So you go in a place of extreme poverty with enormous prevalence of disease and you’ve got one or two health workers literally trying to steward the medical interests of thousand of patients in need. So one way in which technology can play a good role, beyond just giving alerts—its 12:00, it’s time to take the green pill—is to actually push preventative information to people. So one of the examples that I have seen that is very compelling is, for pregnant women, pushing content to them by SMS about, “What are those things that can be done to ensure the health of fetus, to ensure a healthy pregnancy?”

The thing that I think is more exciting though—I’ve talked about push technology. What I think is more interesting and more compelling than that, even, is being able to create some exchange. So, right now, if there is a sorghum farmer in Mali and that sorghum farmer has lost 50% of his crop and he doesn’t know why, right now, the way in which we would provide aid to that farmer is: some professor in Zurich goes to the airport in London, flies to Lago, flies to Mali, gets to a jeep, drives for three hours, looks at the crop and says, “Oh, this is what you’ve got.” Today, there’s no reason why that farmer shouldn’t be able to take a video enabled phone or a photo enabled phone, take up to a dozen pictures of the crop, send those over mobile networks, send those by e-mail to the professor in Zurich, and—rather than the three airplane flights and the 3 hour jeep ride and the $5,000 in expenses—that person can say, “Oh, this is the problem. This is what you do.” And, by the way, in the meantime you save two weeks and another third of the farmer’s crop.

So a lot of what I’m interested in doing is figuring out how experts can connect to the agricultural world, can connect to the entrepreneurs, and provide real-time technical assistance that’s exchanged, rather than just pushing things and rather than people having to physically be there—to create some virtual connections between people.

Question: Can terrorists use social media to their advantage?

Alec Ross: Absolutely. Look, it would be completely naïve with me to say, “Oh! Here’s the Internet. Here’s 21st century technology, kumbaya, Democracy wins!” That’s not realistic. That’s not the world that we are living in. I do believe that access to technology provides people with information that they otherwise wouldn’t be getting. I think that expands their worldview. I think that young people growing up in Gaza today who can access the Internet and can get information other than what they might be hearing from the Ma’an. Do I think that this is in America’s foreign policy interest? Absolutely.

All of that said, America’s enemies, Al-Qaeda, those entities that wanted to destroy us, are sophisticated in their own use of technology and they know how to use it for communication. They know how to use it for recruitment. You can go on the Internet right now and Google a handful of terms and you can see these recruitment websites. We’ve seen them do horrible things on the Internet, where they will exploit people who they’ve captured and who they are torturing or killing. So this technology offers universal resources to everybody, and that doesn’t necessarily [mean just] the good guys and then we all live happily ever after. Do I think that this is a powerful tool for social good, for economic good, and for democracy? Absolutely, but it would be naïve of me and naïve of anybody to simply say, “Oh, well, we can use this. They won’t. We will win the war for people’s mind and hearts and without any push back, by virtue of the power of these networks.”

Question: How has technology changed political campaigns?

Alec Ross: I do not think large campaigns will ever be the same. There were some absolute rock stars on the Obama campaign—Joe Rospars and Megan Phillips and Chris Hughes. And one thing very interesting about the Obama campaign was [that] those people who are really running the campaign, people like David Plouffe and David Axelrod, they empowered these young entrepreneurs on the campaign to run wild with technology and truly test the boundaries of what it could do.

I’ll give one example of something that, at that time, I don’t know if people quite understood how significant it would be, but it turned out to be significant—when the campaign decided to announce its vice-presidential pick of vice president Biden by text message, and people could send in their cell phone numbers and get the alert by text message.

One of the things that was amazing about that was, because so many people subscribed, because so many people wanted the text message alert, we suddenly now were able to capture the cell phone numbers of huge numbers of Americans, which enabled us then to have ongoing communications with them.

I think that a lot of what the Obama campaign pioneered in terms of its use of technology is just going to have to be a standard part of every national campaign by both parties from now on. And I think that a lot of that would evolve to congressional gubernatorial races, because some of what we saw. I might have this number wrong, but I think that Joe Rospars has a 190 person staff. One of the things that we know about technology is that it becomes increasingly commoditized and increasingly inexpensive. So things that may have cost the Obama campaign million of dollars, some entrepreneur is out there figuring it out how to do for a hundred of thousand of dollars, and how to sell it. So I have a feeling that every candidate for governor, every candidate for the senate and for the house, is saying, “Hey! How can I get some of that Obama campaign tech mojo?”

Question: What advice would you give someone who wants to enter your field?

Alec Ross: You know, I couldn’t tell you how I prepared for this. I still don’t consider myself to be a technologist per se; I’ve spent the last 15 years fighting poverty. I got started as an inter-city school teacher in West Baltimore teaching middle schoolers. I went and identified portable housing work, and then I started a non-profit that was focused on technology, but for me it wasn’t about technology, it was about educational and economic opportunity. What I did is I sort of immersed myself in technology as a way of addressing those issues.

Now if somebody said to me today, “Alec, you’re 37 years old and you are doing something that is really cool that fuses technology with diplomacy and development,” that’s something I’d like to do. How do I get these technology jobs? How do I get ahead of the curve on these things? My advice to that person would actually be, don’t go get a job in the technology sector, get a job in the development world but figure out how you can apply technology in that world.

Recorded on: July 29, 2009


A conversation with the senior adviser for innovation in the Office of the Secretary of State.

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