This week, I joined the Washington Post‘s channel on innovation as a volunteer blogger. It’s an exciting development. Here’s a snippet of my first piece:

While we’re still a ways from being able to identify a direct relationship between specific public diplomacy campaigns and changes in foreign opinion, social analytics applications like Klout may soon become a vital tool for digital diplomats. Klout, whichTime magazine included in a list of the year’s 50 best Web sites on August 16, gives its users a score based on how influential they are across a range of social networks. Contributing to the social savviness readout is a wealth of information about users’ most engaged followers and the topics they respond to best.

I’ve already got a few new ideas in the hopper. Keep an eye out for them in the weeks ahead!


Over at The Economist, Will Wilkinson depicts a murky future for gluttonous Americans who want to have their cake and eat it, too:

According to a new CNN poll, 63% of Americans want the imminent “super committee” to call for tax increases on high earners and 57% want large cuts in domestic spending. Sounds sensible! But don’t get your hopes up. Only 47% favour big cuts in defence spending. Worse, a mere 35% support “major changes” in Social Security and Medicare. I guess there’s a reason defence and old-age entitlements dominate the budget: voters like it that way.

The longtime contradiction between what voters would like to keep (everything) and what they’re willing to give up (very little) is a topic I’ve discussed before. But Wilkinson’s post is worth mentioning for another reason. It reveals some major shortcomings in the way polls are framed. I’m not talking about the kind of framing that leads respondents to certain conclusions; that’s a fairly common problem and people know about it. What I’m talking about are the kind of questions that are isolated such that respondents can actually get away with calling for “big cuts” in one question while not having to stand by that answer in later questions about what should get put on the table.

Take this CNN poll, for example. The survey effectively absolves respondents of the responsibility for making a choice. Asking people whether they’d accept cuts to defense spending in one question, and entitlements in another, tricks poll-takers into considering each of these sectors out of their proper context. Such questions are misleading because they presume there is nothing else on the table when respondents know that there are other options the pollster hasn’t mentioned. Choosing not to cut defense spending becomes easier when you know you can just cut from something else that’s not in the question.

Lawmakers don’t have that luxury. Neither should poll respondents. Wouldn’t polling be much more enlightening if the data told us that given a strict choice between cutting entitlements and cutting defense spending, respondents preferred the latter by such-and-such a margin? The snapshot of voter priorities would be much more informative than what we get now, which is a general sense that everything is important. This is also partly why I like the New York TimesYou Fix the Budget interactive feature. It shows users they can’t get the country to where it needs to be with an uncompromising appetite for popular programs and an aversion to taxes. It also circumvents the don’t-cut-anything impulse by telling users that they can have some of what they like—just not all of it.

Image credit: Laenulfean

Instead of working on my thesis, this morning I’ve been tooling around with Google+, Google’s new social layer. I’ll leave it to others to do the really deep analysis, but based on own my test drive, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

The UI is as tasty as everyone says it is. It’s clear the front end of this project (and it’s a project, not a product) was crafted with an eye toward design. More importantly, we aren’t talking about design-by-engineer — a problem that’s consistently frustrated Google launches, and I’d argue still afflicts Android today. This is design by guys who can speak design.

The ability to connect with people you don’t know has great potential. Unlike Facebook, which encourages you to make connections only after you’ve met someone offline, Google+ makes it easy to discover new individuals who are interested in the same things you are. In that way, it’s much more like Twitter than Facebook. Google+ promotes serendipitous encounters and facilitates spontaneous gatherings of loosely affiliated people.

The privacy aspect is genius. There have been times when I’d post a Facebook status that began with the qualifier “To all my LSE friends…” Unintentionally spamming people with links they’re not likely to be interested in has become a thing of the past. Of course, that doesn’t spell the end of oversharing generally.

Like Facebook? At first, and like many people, I thought Google+ was simply a stab at recreating Facebook, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Google+’s main feature isn’t the Stream (a clone of Facebook’s newsfeed). It’s the Circles feature, which are really more like superpowered Google Groups than anything else. Consider their analogue, Facebook groups. Facebook groups are generally subordinate to the newsfeed. In my own experience, I’ve tended to ignore my group memberships and rarely visit those pages if at all. But Circles get top billing in Google+. They’re not simply other pages to visit. They have a direct effect on the way you view your Stream and communicate with people you’re connected to. It feels much more deeply integrated into the communicative experience than a separate chat room off to the side of your newsfeed.

Setting up Circles? Pure drudgery. Google+ is at once both a control freak’s dream and his worst nightmare. With Circles, you can organize your relationships however you want. Most people will be happy sticking to categories like “Co-Workers,” “Neighbors,” “Family,” and so on. But it can get really complex, really fast, if you want it to. Contacts can be part of two circles at the same time, so someone I put in my “London School of Economics” circle could also be part of an “Interested in Politics” circle. Or a third circle, called “London Friends.”

How do you visualize your own friendships? The complete freedom to choose how you organize your relationships forces you to think about the boundaries that distinguish certain individuals from others. This is actually really, really difficult. What makes somebody a “friend”? Facebook users are broadly aware of this problem, but because Facebook considers every person you’re connected to a friend, grappling with the question is pointless. With Google+, you’re forced to confront and examine the unconscious lines your mind draws among your various social circles.

Sparks won’t replace my RSS reader. Sparks is a novel way of finding new and interesting content. It’s like subscribing to a Google search on a particular topic, and those searches are saved in your sidebar. Content you find on Sparks can be shared in your Stream. But as a news junkie, my media consumption is more aggressive. Another filter isn’t what I want. You might say I want just the opposite — the firehose — as an antidote to my FOMO. Sparks feels like an appetizer, or a tapas platter, to Google Reader’s entree. Just compare these two screenshots: one of my Google Reader, and one of my Sparks. You tell me which one seems more efficient.

Do you have Google+ yet? Have you been reading about it? What are your impressions?

Update: Greg Sargent cites another NJ piece suggesting freshman House Republicans are convincing themselves a default is no problem.

It’s become common practice in the political press to point out how far today’s Republican party has drifted from the interventionist Bush Doctrine of the aughties. Former Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe, quoted in National Journal, sums it up neatly:

“I think the [presidential] candidates are reflecting a division among Republicans, many of whom, because of their concern about the current state of economy, have decided we can’t really do both: engage in the rest of the world and fix our economic problems,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., the former chairman for House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. “So they are taking a more pronounced view of that, which would border on isolationism or withdrawal or retreating from our international stage.”

Kolbe’s statement is striking for two reasons. First, it reveals a failure among Republican presidential candidates to fully appreciate the connection between the U.S. economy and the global economy. As an underwriter of the international system, the United States plays a major role in insuring — actively or otherwise — the stability of that system. To focus on the U.S. economy as purely a domestic problem actually downplays the gravity of the situation, which may be one potential explanation for the GOP’s willingness to play chicken with the White House regarding the debt ceiling. The consequences are high, but not so high as to make brinksmanship a bad choice.

Second, and more importantly, Kolbe speaks to a cognitive bias shared by many Republicans, including those who would prefer retrenchment: namely, that engagement leadership is synonymous with aggressiveness, while anything less should be considered isolationist. Yesterday’s speech by Tim Pawlenty offered the best, most recent example of that philosophy. If there’s one lesson Pawlenty has for America on foreign policy, it’s the importance of acting tough. Anyone who would withdraw from Afghanistan — cough Huntsman cough Romney — is too weak to be president.

The GOP’s perception of foreign policy as a dualistic choice between aggressive posturing and isolationist weakness masks many of the subtleties that make international politics what it is. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t occurred to Republican candidates that international leadership can assume different forms. Leading from behind isn’t necessarily the only alternative to leading from the front. Likewise, strength and weakness aren’t binary options along one dimension but extremes at either side of a continuum with many dimensions.

The GOP tends to view force as the only language the world understands. Maybe. But more likely, it could be the only language Republicans know how to speak (fluently).

Image credit: jim.greenhill

Update: Well, that was quick. Lulzsec is no more.

Is it foolish to try? I think not. A declaration of war like the kind Lulzsec has issued practically begs to be analyzed on just war grounds, even if parts of it are meant to be read sarcastically. Here’s the key paragraph in full:

As we’re aware, the government and whitehat security terrorists across the world continue to dominate and control our Internet ocean. Sitting pretty on cargo bays full of corrupt booty, they think it’s acceptable to condition and enslave all vessels in sight. Our Lulz Lizard battle fleet is now declaring immediate and unremitting war on the freedom-snatching moderators of 2011.

The natural counterargument to a just war reading of Lulzsec would be that the theory is simply another means of control — justice for whom? — but as long as moderates accept that framework as a way of judging moral behavior, it’s in Lulzsec’s interest to adhere to it.

So how would Lulzsec’s recent spate of hackery stack up against the just war tradition? The group’s case seems pretty thin to me.

Just war theory concerns two main principles: just cause and just action. The first relates to a party’s right to prosecute war, and the second has to do with a party’s behavior during hostilities. From a moral standpoint, Lulzsec’s cause for war doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable. The group considers governments oppressive and corrupt, a view to which it’s entitled. Its members’ intention to expose corporate and government security flaws also seems well-intentioned on the surface, as something akin to a wake-up call for ordinary citizens. But that’s pretty much where it ends. Lulzsec fails to satisfy many of the other conditions for the right to wage war. For example, it hasn’t exhausted (or tried, for that matter) peaceful political measures, so one can’t say Lulzsec’s turn to warfare is an act of last resort. Nor does it appear that Lulzsec’s attacks are having the intended effect (to the extent it’s even articulated what its intentions and objectives are). The likelihood of warfare actually succeeding, whatever that means, seems dubious. On those grounds, I’d say Lulzsec has some explaining to do.

Lulzsec’s case is even weaker when it comes to the way it’s prosecuted the war on control. By releasing personal data like names, passwords and addresses far and wide, the hackers are using the digital equivalent of indiscriminate violence. The collateral damage that’s been caused arguably far exceeds the damage dealt to the group’s purported targets. By this metric, Lulzsec also fails the proportionality test.

All of this ignores that under just war theory, only legitimate public actors can conduct wars. Obviously, the nature of the Internet raises serious questions about who is and who isn’t a legitimate actor. But more importantly, the tradition highlights states as representatives of collective interest (it’s worth remembering here that just war theory draws from a particular Western-democratic legal tradition). Lulzsec claims to speak for billions of oppressed, but the actual extent of its support is contested. Can a group of six to eight people running a botnet really be considered legitimate representatives of the world’s non-elites, particularly if a great share of those non-elites are unaware the said group even exists? I’m skeptical.

I think it’s pretty clear Lulzsec lacks the standing to wage war, to say nothing of the way it’s gone about doing it. Not that Lulzsec is likely to care — but it should, given what people tend to think about wartime ethics. Hackers would do well to keep those principles in mind.

Image credit: AlaskanLibrarian

Sen. Lindsey Graham had a pithy reaction to last night’s White House announcement that 33,000 troops would be coming home from Afghanistan by mid-2012: Petraeus loses, Biden wins. Biden had been in favor of a more rapid withdrawal, and he got what he wanted, at what looks like Petraeus’s expense.

But there may be a way to achieve a rapid drawdown without dramatically downgrading force integrity, and that is to use private security contractors to fill the gap. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea has been floated privately — contractors already outnumber U.S. troops in Afghanistan, so what’s another 8,000 to 10,000 more? Upping the number of contractors would be an easy and quiet way for President Obama to end the surge without really ending the surge.

I’m not endorsing the idea. Exploiting ordinary Americans’ indifference toward hired guns for the sake of political cover is a revolting prospect. It legitimates the notion that we can fight wars by remote control. That said, I wouldn’t blink an eye if contractor strength in Afghanistan really did increase in a few months.

Joshua Foust thinks the drawdown will be bad news for private security firms, and I think he’s right in the long run. They’ve gotten used to eating at the high table after nearly a decade of war. That’s unsustainable. But their time of reckoning could be a ways off yet. Keep a close eye on these guys as the withdrawal begins.

Image credit: isafmedia

Every new technology produces a ripple effect. The steam locomotive didn’t simply streamline the business of getting from point A to point B; it led to sophisticated railroad systems that became part of the critical economic infrastructure of the states that adopted them. The same could be said of the automobile and interstate highways.

It’s no different with the Internet. Let’s take an example most of us can relate to. Facebook is important to us at one level because it enables people to maintain connections with others. But Facebook is also significant because it’s inspired a generation of coders, hackers and programmers to produce third-party software for its app marketplace. Entire companies (industries, even) have been built on top of Facebook’s platform, which itself couldn’t have happened without the Internet.

Tyler Cowen thinks the difference between Internet technologies and older inventions is that the new ones simply aren’t innovative enough. The automobile had a major impact on American quality of life, for instance, as did the telephone, the lightbulb and other items that were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What have we got now? Farmville. Farmville’s value is debatable. Not only does it distract us from being more productive — it also has little to offer the economy in itself.

Though I think Cowen’s right that Americans have lost sight of the big picture on innovation (if there ever was one to begin with), his view is also bound by a distinctly 20th-century understanding of quality of life — what it is, how we measure it, what contributes to it. Tim Lee’s response is to say that as technology becomes more multifunctional, our quality of life goes up even as the trend has a negative effect on GDP by killing off superfluous products:

The digital revolution isn’t just introducing novel ways to amuse ourselves, it’s rapidly displacing a wide variety of “revenue-generating” products and services: typewriters, newspapers, magazines, books, maps, cameras, film development, camcorders, yellow pages, music players, VCRs and DVD players, encyclopedias, landline telephones, television and radio broadcasts, calendars, address books, clocks and watches, calculators, travel agents, travelers checks, and so forth.

It isn’t our quality of life that’s lacking, Lee says, so much as the tools we use to measure it.

More broadly, I might add that we have a further defect in the way we generally think about inventions — as products engineered to produce predictable benefits. Part of what Cowen’s missing, I think, is an appreciation for the ripple effects. How much value should we ascribe to Facebook enabling Zynga’s success? How much value will we reap a decade from now when the teenager who became inspired to tinker with iPhone apps in 2010 becomes the Steve Jobs of 2020? Meaningful innovation isn’t driven with a view to benefits alone; it’s driven by the promise of creating opportunities for other people.

Image credit: KatherineKenny

Over at TNR, Jonathan Chait’s reading Paul Ryan’s below-the-radar speech on foreign policy as yet more evidence of Ryan’s intention to run for president. Catch the full text of the June 2 address here.

What does Ryan actually think about U.S. foreign policy, and are his prescriptions credible? If Chait is right and Ryan runs, this speech will undoubtedly come up again, so it’s worth doing a close read of the address now on its own merits.

Ryan’s support for a more militaristic American face is relatively uncontroversial (for a Republican). It’s the extent of that conviction that’s remarkable. He laments how U.S. defense spending as a share of the budget has shrunk since 1970. Leaving aside that Washington’s military budget has actually increased in absolute terms since then, Ryan’s approach is slightly outdated. He’s trying to craft a 21st-century budget using the Cold War as a frame of reference. The international environment looks nothing like it did 40 years ago.

For an example of how Ryan’s preferences would play out in an ideal world, take a look at the original “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal. As Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin reported at the time, Ryan wanted to cut U.S. spending on international affairs by 44 percent over five years to $29 billion, while at the same time increasing the military budget by 14 percent to $642 billion over the same period. By 2016, the United States would spend 22 times more on defense than it did on diplomacy. Ryan’s proposal would effectively replace statesmen with soldiers. At the risk of excessive snark, my response might be: We tried that with Iraq, and it didn’t work then. Maybe we should try something else.

At the center of this muscular foreign policy, Ryan said Thursday, should be a firm commitment to supporting democracies worldwide while putting pressure on non-democratic regimes:

Now, if you believe these rights are universal human rights, then that clearly forms the basis of your views on foreign policy. It leads you to reject moral relativism. It causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests.

This sounds great, but it leads to more questions. To his credit, Ryan anticipates some of them — the most important one being “What happens when our principles are in conflict with our interests?” — but instead of giving a direct response, he simply sets up a straw-man and takes it down:

According to some, we will never be able to resolve this tension, and we must occasionally suspend our principles in pursuit of our interests. I don’t see it that way. We have to be consistent and clear in the promotion of our principles, while recognizing that different situations will require different tools for achieving that end.

That doesn’t really answer the question. It’s a skillful piece of armchair strategizing that gives Ryan the option of having his cake and eating it too while directing a jab at the White House. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected more, but… I expected more.

In fairness, Ryan didn’t succumb to the significant temptation of painting China as a threat. Instead, he emphasized the need to integrate Beijing into a stable international system. Although there are no guarantees about such a policy, I think in general it’s safe to say that the more invested China is in keeping the global economic and political order afloat, the more likely it is that will begin assuming the burdens of providing some public goods. Unfortunately, this is where Ryan’s foreign policy vision contradicts itself. In his view, to have China help underwrite global security would threaten American leadership. It’s a conundrum he could escape if he defined U.S. leadership a little more broadly than in military and economic terms alone, but so far, he hasn’t done that.

There’s a lot more to say, but these are the key points. What do you think of Ryan’s approach to foreign policy?

Image credit: U.S. Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

Back when China and Google had their falling out over search censorship, I argued that the real story in China wasn’t the future of search — it was mobile. Yesterday, we got another glimpse at that strategy.

Google Inc. (GOOG) is “very positive” about prospects for mobile content in China and believes the country has a unique role to play in developing the market, John Liu, Google’s head of sales in China, said today.

“China is a part of the global Internet market that, with the size of its customer base and its level of development, you’ve got to treat China seriously,” Liu said at a technology conference in Beijing. “China will play a unique role in developing mobile technology and we’re very positive about the future of the mobile Internet in China.”

It’s been suggested elsewhere that the relative youth of China’s mobile market is a good opportunity for Google to give mainland competitors the runaround. I think that’s a convincing read of the situation, especially since Google’s U.S. division continues to make great strides developing mobile tech. There are few reasons why innovations like Android or Google Wallet can’t be transplanted to other countries (in fact, Android phones are already available in China — but problematically, they mostly come without Google search installed).

Traditional search is a losing deal for Google; it accounts for just 19 percent of all online queries performed in mainland China, down from 30 percent at the height of the censorship scuffle in January 2010. By contrast, China’s main search engine, Baidu, dominates some 75 percent of the market. A setback like that is hard to recover from, but the mobile Internet is a different playing field altogether. At the very least, Google has a fighting chance.

Liu’s comments yesterday might be construed as a tactical shift acknowledging Google’s defeat over censorship and subsequent loss of market share, but a quick check of Google’s behavior in China reveals a clear (if sometimes frustrated) mobile strategy. As early as 2005, Google sought partnerships with network service providers like China Mobile, the nation’s largest. By 2008, Google was advocating for cheaper 3G data service to lure Chinese mobile Internet users. And in 2009, the head of Google in China declared that he was “betting heavily” on mobile, as he expected mobile search to outpace desktop search by 2012.

It’s clear that confronting the Great Firewall did Google’s desktop search no favors. But Google was never going to win the war with Baidu, anyway — not in any reasonable amount of time. The question now is, how much harm did Google’s run-in with Beijing do to its all-important mobile strategy? That’s the story no one’s talking about.

Image credit: Tricia Wang

Big news out of media land today: Netflix’s streaming video service now accounts for 30 percent of all Internet content downloaded in North America. It’s the single largest source for Web traffic on the continent, outstripping YouTube, Hulu and BitTorrent combined. In principle, serving up all that on-demand video puts strain on the Internet’s infrastructure, giving service providers like Comcast and AT&T good reason to limit how much data their broadband subscribers can consume. The problem is, not only do data caps force users to police their own Web activity (do I rent Inception or buy the new Lady Gaga album on Amazon?); they also threaten to manipulate the future of the Internet by stifling trends in innovation.

The key trend to mention here is cloud computing. At the moment, Netflix is probably the best expression of this concept: rather than keeping the film you want to watch somewhere in your house or on your computer’s hard drive, you request the video from Netflix’s website — and the company then feeds it to you from their machines over the Internet. If you use Gmail, Flickr, or any other webapp where your content is stored remotely, that’s considered cloud computing, too. But cloud computing is no longer about having a novel kind of customer experience (if it ever was). It’s also becoming a key pillar in the way our businesses (and even government agencies) operate. Cloud computing is attractive to end users because it enables them to access their content anywhere that they have Internet, and back-ups are taken care of automatically. It’s attractive to governments, organizations and businesses because the technology that underwrites it is efficient, inexpensive and (generally) reliable.

If we left the Internet to its own devices, chances are cloud computing would take off, spawning a whole new class of Web-based services we haven’t even imagined yet. It would mean a change in the way we design computers, making hard drives smaller in terms of both capacity and physical size, allowing manufacturers to focus on other, newer features. And if it hasn’t already, cloud computing promises to change the way we work and play in significant ways.

But data caps undermine cloud computing’s innovative potential. For cloud computing to work, you need unfettered access to the Internet — not an Internet that shuts down or slows to a crawl after you’ve consumed 150.01 GB of data. Internet service providers claim these measures are necessary to fight network congestion. Whether or not that’s true, ISPs have been notoriously resistant to investing in new infrastructure. For the sake of innovation, I’d argue for building more capacity before penalizing consumers for their natural behavior. For the record, the same logic holds for net neutrality, but that’s for another time.

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