‘The twenty-first century is a terrible time to be a control freak.’

7 12 2009

Jared Cohen, author, thinker, and State Department Staffer gave an excellent keynote address to the Legatum Institute on Global Opportunities: Youth, Technology and Partnership in a Networked Century.

Jared spoke passionately about his experiences in Iran, where out of a population of 70m, 67% are under the age of 30. ‘Technology is making young people realise their value as a demographic…a demographic de facto party.’ Youth activism is not based on party, or even split by cause as NGOs tend to be.

The ‘new virtual commons that defines the world today’ was one of Jared’s central ideas. There is a
tsunami of change and development at hands of connection technologies’, but it is certain that ‘the tools won’t define the movements, but will enable the movements.’ He presented the ‘apathetic masses‘ as ‘game-changing’, citing examples in Moldova, India, South America, and Iran. This challenges the commonplace view that ‘slactivism’ is a hindrance to ‘real’ movements, as it only panders to the conscience of those ‘apathetic masses’. The scale of technological change is particularly striking: 4.6bn in the world have mobile phones;in Pakistan in 2000, 750 thousand had them – now the figure is 78 million.

Another key feature of technology’s impact on society is the fact that those who populate ‘civil society’ (i.e. activists, politicians, charity workers, NGOs) and those who are less interested in such things, all inhabit the same space online. ‘They hang out together’, as Jared put it. The anonymity of online activity has several advantages. First, it protects activists from oppressive regimes; second, it prevents discrimination by age (many of the post-Mumbai bombing demonstrations were orchestrated by a 14 year old boy); and finally, it allows for mass-awareness in a way that produces change, which offline activites – however well-intentioned – never could.

Jared presented a new take on how ‘civil society’ can operate, contrasting the mass-communicating, mass-activist, interconnected world of today with the NGOs and Charities of 1989. The Berlin Wall – both a literal agent and symbol of division – has been replaced by the firewalls of authoritarian regimes around the globe. These firewalls are very difficult to maintain, and often the generational gap (in terms of technology as much as demographics) means that the authorities tend to chase rather than dominate.

Jared also championed the development of ‘more inclusive partnerships’, between NGOs, private companies, and the connected masses, as the most effective means of initiating and sustaining positive change in the world.



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