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Computer Revolution #4 (and counting)

I am doing my FSI talk again on Monday.   It is very similar to the one I did in February, but there are some additions and changes.   The new PowerPoint is included at this link.  I was thinking through the slides and about the impact of new media this time.  Below are a few ideas.  I don’t know if I will use them in the very short presentation, but maybe if somebody asks.

This is the forth computer revolution that I have personally experienced

The first was when I was still too young to have much of an understanding.   This was the one where computers were going to take over the world.  Science fiction movies had computers just usurping the thinking of humans.   There were “evil” computers like Hal on “2001: a Space Odyssey” (funny, 2001 came and went w/o that Jupiter mission) but mostly they were just better than we mere humans.  The irony is that the actual computing power was so low in those days that we just laugh at the perceived threat.

I was part of the next revoltuion, proud and excited.  This was when young people (like me at the time) were going to use computers to change the world and displace all the accumulated wisdom of the ages with our raw young intelligence bolstered by computer power. The problem was that we really didn’t know how to do anything.  The computers just helped us do nothing much faster than before and leveraged our mistakes.  I recall a saying on the wall the University of Minnesota, where I got my MBA. It said,

“to err is human, but if you really want to mess up you need computer support.”

The other MBA epitaph was, "Often wrong but never in doubt." Harness that to the power of computers and see what you come up with.  

The third revolution was the dot.com boom of the late 1990s.  This is the one we have to pay close attention to because it has lessons for today.  The idea of the dot.com is that you didn’t really need any content or products. The race was for attention – eye balls.  People set up web sites supposedly selling all sorts of things, but all they really cared about was exposure.  Money poured in to investments in dot.com. It wasn’t until around March of 2000 that people noticed that the emperor had no clothes. The demise of the dot.com pulled the market down with it and also much of the economy.  The NASDAQ still hasn’t fully recovered. Some firms like Amazon.com came out winners. The difference was their organizational skills and the fact that they delivered real products.

We have our own special dot.com cautionary tale. We (the USG, State, USIA) messed up big-time in the 1990s in relation to public affairs, or at least the concept did.  Many were taken in by the promise of the Internet and there were those who thought we didn’t need a real presence on the ground in other countries. We could do it all from Washington.  During the 1990s, we closed posts, shut down most of our libraries (made them into Information Resource Centers), eliminated many of our centers overseas and generally let our public affairs capacity atrophy. A simple but telling statistic is that there were only about half as many public diplomacy officers in 2000 as there had been in 1990.  After the attacks of 9/11, we really didn’t have the people on the ground or the experience needed to communicate with world publics. The website “air war” was a bust. You can reach millions of people, but you are just wasting your time if they aren’t paying attention or your message doesn’t appeal.

BTW - Rebuilding American diplomatic capacity began soon after 9/11. Colin Powell spearheaded a diplomatic readiness initiative to help compensate for the damage done during the 1990s Results are starting to show but rebuilding networks will take a while longer. U.S. diplomacy has a very peculiar age structure because of the nineties neglect. There are many new employees (>10 years experience) and many old employees (20 > years experience), but not many in the middle.  This will be a challenge in the next five years, as much of the experience will go out the door through retirements. (Career diplomats can retire after 20 years.) It will be a good time to look for a job in the Foreign Service, but our government will be paying for mistakes of the 1990s for the next ten years. You cannot turn these things on and off like a light bulb. Think of public affairs like a forest. Things take time.  The trees you plant today determine the forest years from now and you cannot expect to walk in the shade of your trees that you didn't plant 15 years ago.

Some things just take time.

Now here we are in revolution #4. I don’t know how this story will end.   My earnest hope is that we will remember that we are always and everywhere talking to people.   People are funny.  They don’t always do what you think they will.   You still have to understand them before you can expect them to understand you.   In this latest age of new media, reaching out with the newest tools is necessary, but not sufficient to achieve our goals.


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Comments

"Career diplomats can retire after 20 years."

I don't call 20 years a career. How can you learn to do something like diplomacy in only twenty years?

I wouldn't expect a diplomat to be much use until he/she has at least 30 years' experience.

Don

Not only CAN we retire after 20 years, many of us get kicked out soon after.

We have an up-or-out system. We have to go through the ranks from start to the senior foreign service within 27 years, or else we are forced to retire.

When we reach the FS-01 level, we have to op-into a competition for SFS. We have six years after that to make it.

I joined the FS in 1984. Most of my classmates are already now retired or otherwise out of the service.

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