The State Department-sponsored Conference on Blogs and Democracy that I attended last Thursday and Friday left me with mixed feelings. Some of those feelings were very positive, but, in the final analysis, I left with negative feelings about the U.S. government’s ability and will to do its duty in the face of a sometimes difficult-to-understand new world of online communications.
Among the good points were a large handful of intelligent, dedicated people who were fascinated by the topic of how blogs and other social software are used to disseminate discussion worldwide on, among other things, democracy and terrorist ideologies. Some of these people knew very little about social software, some knew quite a bit. But their curiosities were intact and that was heartening. I also found out that there were a few programs to, for example, actively, openly comment on blogs, to bring the U.S. point of view to the blogosphere. I don’t want to overstep my bounds (no one enjoys an icepick in the back of the head), so I won’t get into details, but it was a start at least. There are also programs to disseminate information on democracy around the world. You’d think it would be a good foundation to build on.
Also, the presenters at the conference were a mix of Americans and citizens from around the globe. Except for one, the academics were full of self-regard and seemed pretty firmly behind the curve. But in general, the speakers were interesting, even when I disagreed with them.
However, the negatives at this conference were profound. As an American and as a professional communicator with an interest in the possibilities for understanding and dialogue these new technologies provide, it was a disappointing encounter. I’ll give just two examples of what seemed to me to be the dominant notes among the governmental types I met at the conference.
One governmental factotum, whom I call The Careerist, went on at length (and with a bizarre affinity for violent imagery) both in session and outside, about how the government is different from everything else and that none of these technologies could or would ever be used. Furthermore, and here was the important part, if he, or any of his ilk, ever tried blogging and anything was objected to by his superiors, “It would be the end of my career!” This was very important to him and he stressed it with great passion. There was a general nodding of heads.
I’d like to directly address this gentleman and all of his compatriots in the government: Your career, and 1,000 careers just like yours, would be a small price to pay to save one American life. No one outside of D.C. gives a damn about your career. We care that you do your damned job and that you understand the world, stop terrorists and communicate the needs and desires of the American people to the world community.
In a similar stripe to The Careerist was Government Jesus. Government Jesus cried that not only was she obliged to learn how to blog, she was also now supposed to learn del.icio.us bookmarking and tagging and Chinese!
First off, WTF? Secondly, no one was saying anything of the sort. The presenters were offering you tools and methods to employ in your efforts to understand what people are saying about the U.S. and a background on the communications vehicles of terrorists and democracy activists both. Government Jesus, whose very tone seemed to plead with us to understand how much she was already doing for all of us, was on the verge of tears. How could we be so cruel as to wish her not simply to do things, but to do more things! And what for? Just to save American lives and rescue our reputation in the world?
Well, if I believe that The Careerist’s opportunities for advancement should take a very distant back seat to the safety of American citizens and the American experiment, can you imagine how I feel about Government Jesus’s hand-wringing plea to be let alone? Exactly. I am unsympathetic.
To tie it all off, the sponsors of the conference have decided to restrict the password-protected conference website to governmental employees only. It’s almost as though they were searching for a way to concretize the great institutional Missing-of-the-Point the conference became for me. Now Government Jesus and The Careerist can exchange reasons for ignoring the use of social software by democracy activists and terrorists both, while exchanging computer solitaire tips with no nosy civilians peering over their shoulders.
So, as interesting as it was to attend and present at this conference, I fear the great mass of experience and knowledge that the presenters brought to these government intelligence officials has fallen on deaf ears. This, despite the manifest failures of intelligence leading up to 9/11. I believe few, if any, of the attendees will push for these new communications technologies to become a part of their toolset and they will almost certainly not propose their various departments risk workload budgets or career trajectories to implement social software to promote and defend democracy and to debate issues of U.S. actions and global democracy with the world. I fear they will tell their bosses, “Blogging is nothing we need to worry about.”
I’d just like to say, right here and now, for the record: