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Director of Google Ideas discusses technological empowerment

Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, spoke Tuesday afternoon about the new and complex challenges facing technology users and developers in the near future. Cohen began by exploring how technology shapes individual lives today and then delved into how new geopolitical issues will soon arise when an even larger portion of the world’s population attains greater access to the Internet.

Cohen began by assessing the political and strategic importance of technology. He charted technology’s evolving importance in foreign and geopolitical policy, arguing that technology must be integrated fully into every aspect of how we think about the world strategically.

“Foreign policy and statecraft are basically just fancy and sophisticated ways to say troubleshooting,” Cohen said, noting that, when troubleshooting, one must make sure to use the sophisticated tools at one’s disposal, which in this case would be technology.

Technology is essential to a modern worldview, Cohen argued, because of its vast and rapidly increasing reach. He noted that more than two billion people have access to the Internet and that over 100 hours of YouTube footage is uploaded every minute.

Cohen added, however, that the facts and figures he shared couldn’t illustrate why the increasingly widespread reach of such technology was important, especially on an individual level. To demonstrate such an individual importance, Cohen turned to numerous stories of personal empowerment through technology.

Most of his stories of technological empowerment centered on developing countries like Mexico and Afghanistan. One narrative involved Libyan girls who used Google Maps to chart out conflict-free routes to attend school safely during the Libyan Civil War. Cohen told the story of one woman in Pakistan whom the Taliban had punished by burning off her skin with acid and who ultimately married a man she met online — the Internet had provided her with opportunity beyond her burned skin.

Cohen took from these stories a theme of individual empowerment and innovation. His argument was that, just as in the stories he told, people do more with less and that necessity drives innovation.

“Countries that are impoverished … are the ones where people are going to do the most interesting things with technology,” he explained.

Having discussed the impact of technology on the individual in the present, Cohen progressed to talk about what future issues would arise as technology continued to permeate the world’s population. He noted that currently only a fraction of the global society has real access to technology and added that with up to five billion new technology users primed to connect in the future, new problems would arise for technology users, developers and other concerned parties such as governments.

Cohen especially focused on the impact of technology’s increasing accessibility in many volatile, developing environments, arguing that technology in these areas would cause challenges very different from the ones confronting the more industrialized users who make up the majority of technology users today.

Of these new and evolving challenges and problems, Cohen identified numerous future “big disruptions,” including issues of reputation, revolution, information leaks, censorship and terrorism.

The same motivations that drive sectarian violence, ethnic discrimination and other such forms of intolerance also exist in the online world in forms such as cyberbullying, Cohen noted, adding that the barrier to entry for engaging in such online actions is much lower. Cohen argued that, as consequences are muted by the anonymity of the Internet, more people would be willing to engage in discriminatory and harmful activities.

On the topic of revolutions in the coming years, Cohen said “they will be easier to start, [will] happen faster and will be much harder to finish,” citing the recent Arab Spring as evidence. He stated that technology created a crisis of leadership by accelerating the pace of revolutionary movement making, which in turn made becoming a truly established, credible leader much less possible.

Cohen also touched on the future of information leaks such as those by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. To this end, he predicted that leaking would only increase in frequency, as technology has allowed people like Snowden to leak in bulk, make information drops from remote locations and publish the information independently of any media outlet.

“We will be operating in a world where keeping secrets is far more difficult,” Cohen said.

With regard to censorship, Cohen said he worried that developing countries with autocratic leadership would use new technology to restrict key tools such as the Internet. Although he fretted about “groups banding together to create collective editing of the Internet,” he also noted that technological capabilities to combat censorship are rapidly evolving.

Cohen concluded his remarks by discussing education, saying the Wilson School should assume a leadership role in attempting to hybridize the social sciences and their more technical scientific counterparts. He added that despite the relatively gloomy job statistics undergraduates face today, there is no better time to graduate than now. In his view, because this wave of graduates will be the first to have technology integrated into their lives from start to finish, every student is going to intuitively know more about technology than their employers, a comparative advantage for new graduates.

“I would kill to graduate at the time kids are graduating today,” Cohen said.

Cohen’s lecture, entitled “The World in 2020: Technology, Geopolitics, and the Next Disruptions,” took place in Dodds Auditorium and was sponsored by the Wilson School.

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