New Tech, Old Diplomacy

4 Mar

Some people like to talk about generational shifts — changes that occur that clearly mark a division between one generation and the next.  I’d argue that the Internet and the continuing stream of related technologies it produces, is one of the biggest generational shifts in recent memory.  No big news there, but what does it mean for someone like me, whose computer experience during my formative years was Dark Castle on a Macintosh SE, Frogger, and a friend named Rob Walsh who understood the intricacies of an IBM PS/2.  I typed my U.S. History term paper my senior year in high school on an electronic typewriter for god’s sake (and RIP forever to all typewriter correction ribbons).

Many if not most of us will never be that tech-savvy, and certainly not every new technology can be described as necessary or an improvement.  In fact, so many of the small programs or applications I read about seem more like ways to make yourself more inefficient.  You might be somewhat better organized with the assistance of a new eamil sorting program, but the time that you save often is really just more time available for some other triviality, like a program watching dots that represent current airline flights cover your computer’s screen.  Damn, that’s cool!

But the more important issue is how these changes are changing the face of the aging, wrinkled institutions like the diplomatic service.  The State Department has an Office of eDiplomacy and International Information Programs, but it’s unclear as to how much impact these offices have on daily diplomatic work.  While they may increase the total output of information, it makes sense to ask how many people actually use these products, and more importantly, if these uses actually improve the way in which the State Department conducts business.  Typically, the Department assumes that more information is better.  But shouldn’t accessing more end-users be the goal?  Reaching more audiences through modern mediums that they use in their daily lives?
I don’t know the answer, but it’s telling that for the majority of diplomats, PowerPoint and some Excel spreadsheeting are still the pinnacles of  their interaction with technology.  Toss in a Blackberry here and there.   That’s cutting edge, if you’re the average upper-middle class 12-year-old in America.

The United States became a world leader in the mid-20th century because Americans produced the latest innovations, created things that the world had never seen, and pushed new ideas out across the globe.  Today the new ideas seem to be coming from other places, and from audiences that we don’t have as much access to nor a sufficient understanding of.  Everyone has an opinion and an audience.  The challenge is sorting through those opinions, establishing your credibility, and building, for lack of a better word, a following.  Kind of like blogging.  There are many ways to impress people, and however distasteful it might seem, perception is at least as important as fact.  Is the U.S. doing a good enough job of managing perceptions in the 21st century so far?

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6 Responses to “New Tech, Old Diplomacy”

  1. kendrita March 4, 2007 at 10:45 pm #

    A friend told me on Friday that her mother teaches powerpoint to her second grade students! Luckily, there is still some value to life experience or else we’d be replace by 7 and 8 year olds!

    On the whole, I do think that if you want to reach and influence any target audience, you have to reach the audience in a way in which it receives, processes, and digests its information. So there is a trude need for some sort of e-diplomacy approach. The part that troubles me, and to which you allude in your last paragraph, is whether or not the US government is observing the other critical tenet of reaching their target market, which is “know your audience.” I’m not so sure that in our efforts to give our pespective or debunk inaccurate reports, perceptions, etc., that we are taking the time to listen to these audiences, hearing their voices and their perceptions and taking the time to learn more about who they are and not just tell them who and what is the United States.

  2. mom March 5, 2007 at 4:26 pm #

    Could not agree with you more Kendra! It is so perfectly said!

  3. Rosk March 7, 2007 at 5:38 pm #

    Conozco al monstruo, he vivido en sus entrañas.

    Well… remember PAS?, that’s their job precisely.

    Although the current administration doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of it and probably it is shrinking their budget. (funds needed to play soldiers…) I remember, that after 9/11 a whole year passed without funding to buy books for the library, and the only things I could catalog were webpages produced by the USG.
    Anyway, I hope that PAS could eventually be -again- an independent agency (USIA). Resources were better used, goals were long-term, or changed faster according to the circumstances.

    And if someone doubts of USIA efficacy. Think Cold War, and who “won” it, and by which means. It’s all about Ideology, Ideology, Ideology.

  4. Laura March 9, 2007 at 7:19 pm #

    One thing to add is that developing countries seem to leapfrog over technological stages that they don’t need. For example, a great many people in Nepal never had telephones but they got cellphones. A cellphone didn’t replace their real phone — they leaped right over that step. Hence, many people in our target audience will have no knowledge of some of the tools we use now, not because they are not technologically advanced enough, but because they are already ahead of us even though they never had those tools at all until just a few years ago. I find this a very interesting phenomenon, and we have to understand it if we are going to reach people.

  5. Deirdrona March 19, 2007 at 10:33 pm #

    To follow from Kendrita- isn’t that what the real tech revolution has been about? Not so much about new ways of getting your message across but, much more, about being able to get information about people and places far away. E.g. world tv and radio available on satellite or tv. What a window into places that before only the privilidged could get to….

    which brings my to another topic that has been vexing commentators in this part of the world: should airlines be taxed for their high carbon emissions? Should low cost flying become a thing of the past, as we return to the days of air travel being prohibitively expensive and, again, only for the privilidged few? Social engineering in the name of the environment????

  6. Deirdrona March 19, 2007 at 10:33 pm #

    PS – must pick up a dictionary: privilidged???

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