Jared Cohen has a common refrain which is likely to crop up when you talk to him. “You can’t understand technology without understanding international relations, and you can’t understand international relations without understanding technology.”
As director of the think tank Google Ideas he’s co-authored a book with Eric Schmidt, for whom he is a formal advisor. Prior to that, Cohen was part of Hilary Clinton’s team at the US Department of State (he was the man who called Twitter and asked them not to shut down during the Iranian protests of 2009 that presaged the Arab Spring). So he’s rather well qualified to make this observation. In the course of his research he’s travelled to a checklist of ‘World’s Least Hospitable Places’ – Syrian, Libya, Afghanistan, North Korea – and come back with stories about the individuals living there who’s lives are made brighter by the advent of the internet and technology. Stories like the women in Pakistan whose faces, scarred by sulphuric acid because they had the gall to go to school, mark them out as targets on the street, but whose cellphones make it possible to engage in debate, conversation and even fall in love in a place where looks really don’t matter (the internet, in case you didn’t get it).
So when we heard Cohen was in Johannesburg for the My World of Tomorrow conference this week to talk about innovation and what it means for the next five billion people coming online, we had to sieze the opportunity to talk to him.
In this episode of the htxt.africast, we ask Cohen about why he thinks Africa is the most exciting and entreprenerial place to be involved in technology right now, and what responsibilities companies like Google have when it comes to protecting new users’ privacy online. We also ask him what dangers there are in Africans becoming reliant on big American tech companies who employ few people and pay even less tax over here.
And in return, Cohen tells us stories of brave people who are willing to their own lives and those of their families for access to information through a cellphone in North Korea, and the extraordinary ‘digital martyrs’ in the democratic movement in Syria.
Curious? Listen to the whole interview here.