Google Ideas chief talks about how technology is changing world

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Jared Cohen hasn’t yet reached his 30th birthday, but he’s been a policy adviser in the Bush and Obama administrations, written two books, and is head of Google’s technology and policy think tank called Google Ideas.

Cohen, based in New York, visited Portland Tuesday as a guest of Portland-based Mercy Corps to share insights about how technology is transforming the world’s security and political dynamics in unpredictable ways, feeding revolutionary fervor in this year’s Arab Spring uprisings and curbing corruption in the delivery of emergency services to refugees.

He filled his talk at Portland’s First Congregational Church with anecdotes from his travels and interviews with young people in Iran, Egypt, and other nations in political turmoil. “Where young people had access to technology, they started realizing the power they had,” said Cohen, an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who turns 30 next month.

He followed with a cautionary note on the limits of technology: “Revolutions happen faster and are easier to start, but they are just as difficult to finish,” he said. “It’s just as hard to build a government back up. It’s not clear that technology is creating new leaders.”

Cohen said he entered Stanford University as an anthropology major, but shifted to a focus on the interaction between technology and social change following a startling series of personal events. After completing research on the Maasai ethnic group in Africa, he traveled to Rwanda to see mountain gorillas and learned about the depth of that nation’s 1994 ethnic cleansing, which cost 800,000 lives in just 100 days.

He also visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo and talked with militants, returning to New York where he spent an evening sharing his experiences with friends. That evening closed with a photograph taken in front of the World Trade Center at 5 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks just a few hours later turned Cohen’s interest to security challenges, leading to research, books, and high-level government jobs.

In 2008 the Bush administration asked Cohen to find and interview leaders of vast anti-terrorist demonstrations held across Colombia on Feb. 4. Those demonstrations turned the political tide against the deeply rooted FARC rebel group, but initially no leaders could be identified. Cohen wound up finding one of the event’s leaders, a man who had attracted 600,000 Facebook friends in just one month.

Such unlikely leaders are part of the “digital disruption,” the title given to Cohen’s speech. Another example, he said, is a video of a girl being shot during a 2009 uprising in Iran that was passed from phone to phone before winding up on YouTube. The video was in front of President Barack Obama in just 2½ hours, and the president was forced to take a position on the uprising. Although the photographer remains anonymous, “someone on the ground in effect was able to get a meeting with Obama,” he said.

Acknowledging that digital technology is being used to both good and bad effect, Cohen emphasized the vast possibilities of technology to attack even the seemingly intractable problem of corruption in developing nations. He even predicted that future refugees won’t have to pack all their belongings with them as they move to refugee camps. Those unfortunates could simply carry the phone that would give them direct access to food and basic services, reducing opportunities for corruption along the emergency supplies distribution chain, he predicted.

Cohen closed with separate challenges to the young and the old in his audience. To those under age 30, he said “you are experts in technology. Make sure you leverage your competitive advantage.” He advised the elders to “get on board” with technology.

“In any field, if you’re not thinking about technology you’re not fully grasping what’s going on,” he said. “Be a part of the moment.”

Gordon Oliver: 360-735-4699; http://www.twitter.com/InovateCC; gordon.oliver@columbian.com.