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Alec Ross is one of America’s leading experts on innovation. He served for four years as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a role that[…]

We should not assume that those in poor countries don’t have the ingenuity to use technological tools effectively—and that includes terrorists.

Question: Are social media technologies spreading to the developing world?

Alec Ross: That’s a great question. Prior to coming to the State Department, I spent the last ten years of my life working to bridge the Digital Divide. I, like everybody else in the mid and late 90’s, was witnessing this technology driven change in the way we communicated and transacted business, and a handful of friends of mine and I in 2000 started a non-profit called One Economy, the purpose of which was to connect people around the globe to these technologies. We went from four guys in the basement [to] actually being the world’s largest digital provider organization.

One of the things that I’ve seen over the last ten years, and this is working in the non-profit sector, this is not working in government is there is a very, very fast adoption of this technology around the globe. Is it everywhere? No. But it’s increasingly universal. One of the important points that people need to bear in mind is that the way people actually access the network in the developing world may be different than the way people in the United States are accessing the network. There are six billion people on the planet [and] there are also four billion mobile phones. So we can already see right now, in the developing world, people are skipping the desktop as the way in which they access the network and they’re accessing it directly on their handhelds.

One of the places where I am doing a lot of work now is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the poorest places on earth. And one of the things that the State Department is hoping to do there is use telecommunications and technology tools as a way of protecting women, particularly in eastern Congo, who are vulnerable to acts of extreme violence [and] rape. And in examining the feasibility of this, I said, “It sounds great, but is that naïve? Number one, can people use cell phones? Are they using them? What about literacy gaps?” One of the things that I learned was that today, at this moment, 50% of the country—and it is a massive country with a land mass equal to Texas and Alaska combined—50% of the country right now is covered by a wireless signal and fourteen out of every one hundred people in the Congo are already mobile phone subscribers. And one of the things that’s different in the United States is that, in the United States, everybody has their own phone. But in the Congo, it’s normal actually for three or four people to share the same phone. And so if you just do the math—today fourteen out of every 100 people are mobile phone subscribers; if you assume that there are three users per phone, what that means that today, without the United States doing a thing, 42% of the country is already on mobile phones. So [in] one of the poorest regions of the earth, the Congo, we already see that half of the people are connecting to the network. That, for me, is great affirmation that we should be pushing this technologies in the developing world, and we should be thinking about how 21st technology can help solve some of our intractable development challenges.

Will there be places where we go where people simple aren’t using cell phones, where there is no mobile coverage, where the literacy level is such that people just can’t figure it out? Sure. But I think that instead of just waiting for the world to catch up, the United States can play a role and help them to lead. And so I’m looking at the Congo again, 50% of the country is covered today but a study that I saw by Goldman Sachs said that by 2013, 88% of the country would be covered. So part of it makes sense to me, for us to engage now; while the whole world is getting on this technology and figuring it out, how we can use this technology for economic and social good?

Question: Are those in the Third World able to take advantage of technology?

Alec Ross: I think there’s a lot of unintended paternalism when people think about technology. We oftentimes assume that people who are low income or people who are racial minorities are somehow not going to understand technology, and that we need to parcel out giving access to people who are low income or people who are racial minorities. And I think that is just completely contradictory to what all the data and evidence show, which is that it doesn’t matter how much money is in your wallet, it doesn’t matter from where you’ve come.

Young people all around the globe right now has this incredibly intuitive understanding of technology and its power, and so introducing technology into poor communities doesn’t need to be done so paternalistically because, guess what—within a couple of days these fifteen-year-olds are going to be way ahead of you.

That’s one thing that is very important to me—to take some of the paternalism that I think lives in a lot of our development practices, and recognize that, when it comes to introducing technology, when it comes to introducing innovation into poor communities, don’t be too arrogant about it, because the folks there could be a lot quicker with it and a lot smarter about it than you in very short order.

Question: How specifically is social media helping the Third World?

Alec Ross: I think there are a number of examples. One of the problems, particularly in the developing world, is the lack of medical workers. So you go in a place of extreme poverty with enormous prevalence of disease and you’ve got one or two health workers literally trying to steward the medical interests of thousand of patients in need. So one way in which technology can play a good role, beyond just giving alerts—its 12:00, it’s time to take the green pill—is to actually push preventative information to people. So one of the examples that I have seen that is very compelling is, for pregnant women, pushing content to them by SMS about, “What are those things that can be done to ensure the health of fetus, to ensure a healthy pregnancy?”

The thing that I think is more exciting though—I’ve talked about push technology. What I think is more interesting and more compelling than that, even, is being able to create some exchange. So, right now, if there is a sorghum farmer in Mali and that sorghum farmer has lost 50% of his crop and he doesn’t know why, right now, the way in which we would provide aid to that farmer is: some professor in Zurich goes to the airport in London, flies to Lago, flies to Mali, gets to a jeep, drives for three hours, looks at the crop and says, “Oh, this is what you’ve got.” Today, there’s no reason why that farmer shouldn’t be able to take a video enabled phone or a photo enabled phone, take up to a dozen pictures of the crop, send those over mobile networks, send those by e-mail to the professor in Zurich, and—rather than the three airplane flights and the 3 hour jeep ride and the $5,000 in expenses—that person can say, “Oh, this is the problem. This is what you do.” And, by the way, in the meantime you save two weeks and another third of the farmer’s crop.

So a lot of what I’m interested in doing is figuring out how experts can connect to the agricultural world, can connect to the entrepreneurs, and provide real-time technical assistance that’s exchanged, rather than just pushing things and rather than people having to physically be there—to create some virtual connections between people.

Question: Can terrorists use social media to their advantage?

Alec Ross: Absolutely. Look, it would be completely naïve with me to say, “Oh! Here’s the Internet. Here’s 21st century technology, kumbaya, Democracy wins!” That’s not realistic. That’s not the world that we are living in. I do believe that access to technology provides people with information that they otherwise wouldn’t be getting. I think that expands their worldview. I think that young people growing up in Gaza today who can access the Internet and can get information other than what they might be hearing from the Ma’an. Do I think that this is in America’s foreign policy interest? Absolutely.

All of that said, America’s enemies, Al-Qaeda, those entities that wanted to destroy us, are sophisticated in their own use of technology and they know how to use it for communication. They know how to use it for recruitment. You can go on the Internet right now and Google a handful of terms and you can see these recruitment websites. We’ve seen them do horrible things on the Internet, where they will exploit people who they’ve captured and who they are torturing or killing. So this technology offers universal resources to everybody, and that doesn’t necessarily [mean just] the good guys and then we all live happily ever after. Do I think that this is a powerful tool for social good, for economic good, and for democracy? Absolutely, but it would be naïve of me and naïve of anybody to simply say, “Oh, well, we can use this. They won’t. We will win the war for people’s mind and hearts and without any push back, by virtue of the power of these networks.”

Recorded on: July 29, 2009