Google oracle Jared Cohen on the future and the Internet

In conversation with Google’s ideas man
Jana Juginovic
(EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) attends the launch of ’The New Digital Age: Reshaping The Future Of People, Nations and Business’ by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, hosted by Jamie Reuben, at Loulou’s on May 28, 2013 in London, England.
David M. Benett/Getty Images

It is possible that Jared Cohen has the coolest job on the planet, or at least one of them. The 31-year-old is director of Google Ideas, a self-described “think/do tank” launched two years ago by Cohen and Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman. The Think Tank and Civil Societies Program recently declared Google Ideas the best new think tank in the world, a title earned in no small part to Cohen’s leadership. But Cohen doesn’t spend his time creating new technologies for the tech giant. In fact, Cohen’s not a computer engineer or data scientist. He is a foreign policy wonk, albeit a new generation of wonk, who incorporates a technological toolkit to solving problems.  His job, as he describes it, is to connect activists and NGOs to technology, hoping these connections will empower people to “confront conflicts, threats and repression.”

His new book (yes, he has already written two others) is called The New Digital Age, a book he co-authored with Schmidt. It attempts to explain how the addition of five billion people joining the Internet will change the future.  It’s a theme that circles back to Google Ideas’ mission, to encourage people around the world to use technology for good. Cohen joined Google via a seemingly unlikely route, the U.S. State Department. But he suggests his previous job at the State Department is not that different from his current role at Google.  “I developed a technology portfolio (at the State Department) that I was really proud of. The difference is when I’d show up in Pakistan before, no one wanted me there. Now that I’m at Google, everyone is excited when I show up,” says Cohen.

Cohen became interested in foreign policy early on. While still an undergraduate at Stanford University, the then 22-year-old won the Hines prize for his thesis on U.S. policy towards Rwanda. It became his first book, 100 Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide. In 2003, he won a Rhodes scholarship, which landed him at Oxford University. As part of his research, he travelled to Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, hardly the safest destinations for a Jewish kid from Connecticut. During that journey, he spoke with and observed scores of young people who he suggests, not only embraced technology but Western culture. This led to his second book, Children of Jihad, and more importantly, his firsthand accounts of Iranian youths, caught the interest of the White House.

Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited him to join her Policy and Planning Staff. He jumped at the chance and became the youngest member of that team at the impossibly young age of 24. “Condi Rice is my mentor. She and I are very close. She and President Bush, because they were interested in ushering in democratic movements, inherently got what I was talking about regarding technology and young people,” says Cohen.

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power in his seminal work of the same name, met Cohen at Oxford. He suggests Cohen was a trailblazer. “Jared is very bright and has been ahead of the game in terms of thinking about the use of the Internet for social diplomacy,” says Nye. Cohen quickly became a vital member of Rice’s team and is credited with crafting “21st century statecraft,” which, despite some representations, involves more than just tweeting. Cohen explains, “It is using technology to fundamentally change civil society and empowering others to do what they couldn’t do before.” Cohen’s success at the State Department translated into media attention. The New Yorker famously dubbed Cohen Condi’s Party Starter for his influence in steering the administration’s efforts to empowering youth with technology, not only in the Middle East, but also in other volatile regions of the world. “At the end of their administration, I was briefing President Bush and I was talking about what was happening in Columbia with the anti-FARC movements and technology. I remember President Bush looking at me and saying, ‘Wow, that’s really awesome,’” says Cohen. And according to Cohen, the President really did use the word ‘awesome.’

When Hillary Clinton took over from Rice at the State Department she kept Cohen on and encouraged his approach to foreign policy. As Cohen suggests, “She looked at what the Obama campaign did with technology, and she wanted to do with foreign policy, what she hadn’t done as much with her campaign.” Cohen lists his most tangible accomplishment as establishing links between Silicon Valley CEOs and the State Department that didn’t exist before. Cohen recalls, “While their goals were aligned (freedom of information) they were not interacting. I started cold calling CEOs in Silicon Valley and telling them about what was happening in places like Pakistan and Iraq and asked them if they would want to do a trip there. They all said yes.”

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey travelled on one of those tech delegations to Baghdad. This led to Dorsey making Iraq the first country in the Middle East where Twitter was available. It also fostered a friendship between Dorsey and Cohen, which Cohen says paid off when he needed Dorsey’s help during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution. Twitter had a routine upgrade planned during that time that would have temporarily shutdown the site in Iran. But Cohen called his friend Dorsey and asked him to delay the maintenance. Cohen knew Twitter had become a lifeline for Iranian youth and dissidents. Dorsey agreed, cementing Cohen’s act into social media history. These trips also helped him forge a friendship with Schmidt. Iraq became one of the first locations to deploy Google Street View to map its National Museum, a direct result of a Google visit to Baghdad. It also led to Schmidt’s job offer to join him at Google to create Ideas. Nye says these technological links play a significant role in diplomacy. “The Internet has provided a lot more information to a lot more people. If soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction and persuasion, then the presence of more ideas, enhances the relative role of soft power,” says Nye.

One example of Google Ideas’ recent collaboration is its work with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO). The two worked together using PRIO data to ‘visually’ expose small arms and ammunitions networks. Nicholas Marsh, a research fellow at PRIO says the assistance Google Ideas provided was invaluable. “We had the data but it was in spreadsheets, and of interest to only a small set of people. Google’s data visualization tools allowed us to reach an enormously wider audience, who would never go through a spreadsheet,” says Marsh.

These visual tools did have an impact at the recent United Nations small arms trade treaty negotiations according to Marsh*. “One of the things people were saying, especially when it came to including ammunition in the treaty, was that the trade was too complex and impossible to track. We were able to show them visually where the ammunitions were moving between countries. That had a powerful message,” adds Marsh.

Google Ideas is also attempting to tackle violent extremism, hosting a high-profile summit with former extremists including reformed Nazis, gang members and religious extremists. The summit’s result was an online network called Against Violent Extremism, which aims to use counter-radicalization strategies directed at youth.  The network currently lists 154 former extremists. Berkeley Professor Karen Bhangoo Randhawa, a Canadian who specialized in Peace and Conflict studies applauded Cohen’s efforts but says it’s just the first step. “This effort immensely contributes to how we start to analyze new centers of power that are emerging amongst youth that are mobilizing in joining radicalization. However, we can’t solely think of technology as the central influence. We have to think about indicators that lead individuals to radicalize,” concludes Professor Bhangoo Randhawa

There is however, the question of Google’s recent troubles and how that may impact Google Ideas’ image. Google has recently been criticized in Europe and in the U.S. over accusations of anti-trust violations and tax avoidance, and its recent decision to fight a California privacy bill through its membership in a Silicon Valley lobbying group. There’s also the issue of Google’s size and power. Google is the dominant search engine in the world and its vast array of products earned the company over $50 billion in revenue in 2012. Alice Munyua, a researcher and policy development expert recently told The Guardian that some African nations feel excluded from the Western-dominated Internet industry. “There is a digital divide in terms of access, but also in appropriating the Internet for our own development,” says Munyua.

Cohen explains he wrote the book with Schmidt to provoke discussions and because they were tired of debates about whether technology was good or bad. “It doesn’t account for the inevitability of 5 billion new people coming online. There are a whole set of issues not being talked about, because we are getting bogged down over of who is overly enthusiastic or under enthusiastic.  There is a huge need for speculation and reasonable guesses about what is going to happen,” says Cohen.

The authors tackle a specific set of changes that increased connectivity will unleash to privacy, identity, governments, revolutions, terrorism and reconstruction. As recent events have suggested, many of their speculations are a reality. In their book, they devote a significant amount of space discussing cyber warfare, which they write is difficult to trace. China has been accused of sponsoring various attacks but so far the smoking gun is illusive. China’s Ambassador to the U.S. recently told the Council on Foreign Relations, of which Cohen is a Senior Fellow, “I don’t think anybody has presented any hard evidence that could stand up in court, to prove that there is really somebody in China doing these things.”

They also write about how extremists and criminals will use the Internet to commit more crimes and be used as a recruitment platform. Just this week, Facebook admitted that its systems fail to remove hate speech, and online bank Liberty Exchange is accused of a $6 billion virtual money laundering operation. These kinds of activities, the authors, write will only increase as more people join the Internet club. They also suggest revolutions, like the Arab Spring, will be easier to start because of technology. However, they write these revolutions will be harder to finish because technology doesn’t necessarily create first-rate leaders needed to solidify movements and bring about concrete change. But the book is not all doom and gloom; in fact, the authors believe the benefits of the spread of technology will be overwhelmingly positive. “We try to play out what the next ten years will look like. We are not in a position to tell you how to live your life, you should make your own determinations. But despite all these things that scare you, everything is going to be okay, we just need to behave differently,” says Cohen.

Through Google Ideas, Google is rewriting the rulebook on corporate responsibility, taking its famous pledge, “don’t be evil”, to a new level by embracing issues that corporations have historically avoided. already grants $100 million to causes through Google Giving and provides $1 billion in free technology to non-profits. Google Ideas, which is based at Google’s New York office, is taking the company’s social responsibility further than arguably any public company in the world. The next project his group is tackling is pirate networks in Somalia, a project he plans to unveil this fall. While Cohen would not discuss how many employees Ideas has, the size of its budget or structure, he is confident its approach can make a difference. Cohen concludes, “Technology has an empowerment bias, that will inspire people to do good or ill. The reason that we are net optimistic is because the vast majority of people are good.”

(*Note: The U.N. small arms treaty was approved by the Generally Assembly in April 2013, but major exporters like China, India and Russia abstained; and Iran, Syria and North Korea voted no, somewhat lessening the impact the treaty will have.)