As big as the printing press: Alec Ross on the wonders—and dangers—of the web

It is a scientifically proven fact (or will be, once somebody gets around to studying it) that the internet favours extremes. Trolls (like spammers) are inescapable. And as Alec Ross said in his keynote address to the Project Revolution conference last week, moderation and compromise tend to get punished in the process.

Ross, senior advisor for innovation to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, knows this all too well.

“Discussions on my Facebook page tend to be more civilised than on Twitter, and I think that’s in part because of the real name policy,” he told Idealog.

This is the aspect of the web that he likes the least, he says, and is an area where he sees room for innovation. Just how do we inject moderation into polarised conversations? Ross doesn’t know, but he hopes somebody will figure it out.

In the meantime, sanity suffers on.

Almost as big as the printing press

That said, technology is simply a tool, and not inherently good or evil. Technology has been central to Ross’ career (he started One Economy in 2000, a non-profit bringing technology to low-income people around the world, and after being recruited to the 2008 Obama campaign, was instrumental in its innovative use of social media to mobilise new ranks) and he believes the internet has had the biggest impact of any technology since the printing press.

A question from the audience: Is it disruptive enough to put an end to the nation state as we know it?

Ross acknowledges that the internet “doesn’t respect national lines” and that boundaries are being eroded, but while the ancient concept of state sovereignty has been shaken, it won’t be destroyed, he says.

A baseline of transparency

For decades politicians have largely worked behind closed doors. Today, we expect more from them and in turn, they must tread a fine line between security and accountability.

“There is an implicit tension. The question for me is what is the default setting – is it open or is it closed? What’s important is the default be openness and transparency,” says Ross. “There are necessary security conditions; it’s still necessary for there to be confidential communications between diplomats. I don’t want a webcam streaming everything I do in my office. We’ve tried to move it from transparency being the exception to being the norm. But it’s never 100 to zero. I live in a world of nuance.”

So has he seen a mindset shift within the US government?

Ross is quick to emphasise that he’s not the only one responsible for effecting change.

“Our team at the State Department – I feel like we’re the All Blacks. We’re a good team and it’s not all about one player,” he says. “I do believe we’ve significantly changed the way that people think about foreign policy. I think before, foreign policy was perceived to be just between people sipping coffee at a mahogany table behind closed doors with flags flying in the background, having one-on-one government-to-government communications. I think foreign policy has been wildly opened up and I think we’ve played a meaningful role in that.”

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