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Confab in Silicon Valley: How to move from 'dumb mob' to 'smart mob'

In early March, leading thinkers in the private and public sectors gathered in the epicenter of California's Silicon Valley – Palo Alto –  to take in a bird's eye view of how social media is affecting governance. Social media can empower people, but turning a 'dumb mob' into a 'smart mob' is another matter.

By Nathan Gardels / March 13, 2012

A security person answers a call at the reception counter of the Google office in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad Feb. 6. Internet giants Google and Facebook removed content from some Indian domain websites following a court directive warning them of a crackdown 'like China' if they did not take steps to protect religious sensibilities. How social media will affect government is the question of the century.

Krishnendu Halder/Reuters


Palo Alto, Calif.

The following themes emerged from a brainstorming session on governance and social media held by the Nicolas Berggruen Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., on March 4. Participants included, among others, Jared Cohen of Google Ideas; Microsoft strategist Charles Songhurst; “The Transparent Society” author David Brin; Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo; MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; political scientist Francis Fukuyama; and Alec Ross, the US State Department’s top digital diplomat.

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1. The destructive phase: disruptive technologies and 'crises of progress'

Disruptive technologies that “augment vision, memory and attention” – from the printing press to the World Wide Web – always produce "crises of progress" because they undermine the “protective guilds,” intermediaries, and institutions that once controlled information and power.

The vested interests of those institutions resist the loss of control while the insurgents persist. The first phase of change is therefore usually conflictive and destructive – witness the religious wars in Europe after the Gutenberg press. The forces in this phase are centrifugal – pulling apart and fragmenting.

In our age, the advent of social networks and the transparency of shared networks challenge all hierarchies from monopoly of the mainstream media to professional knowledge protected by credentials (such as doctors), to dictators protected by force.

This unmediated spread of information has given birth both to “the age of the amateur” and the passionate populists of the blog mobs. But the breakdown of intermediaries and the control of information by the credentialed has also given birth to the “unknown expert” whose “10,000 hours” of work and practice is all the qualification required. This breakdown is what has also enabled the leaps of innovation coming from “the dorm rooms and edges” of society.

Systems that adapt to the new transparency, or harness it, can survive. Those that resist will ultimately lose trust, and thus allegiance, and fail.

The rigid, such as the autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia, are brittle and break. The more flexible, such as the medical profession, which has turned patient information websites to its advantage, thrive.

Somewhere in between, autocratic China is headed in two directions at once: a “hyper-surveillance state” that seeks “total information awareness” of the activities of its subjects, yet a state itself subject to the “sous-veillance” of the microblogging population in a kind of “monitory webocracy.”

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