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?