[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted with brief intro from Alix Levine‘s blog — topic: Google’s Summit Against Violent Extremism ]
Google Ideas — the Google “think/do tank” — recently co-hosted (with the CFR and Tribeca Film festival) a conference on countering radical extremism in Dublin, with a mix of “former extremists, activists, academics, survivors, executives and public sector officials” in attendance. Blog-friend Matt Armstrong was there, live-tweeting with enthusiasm. Dr William McCants of Jihadica and CNA wasn’t terribly impressed with the outcome, and posted at Foreign Policy:
I am not ready to give up on the enterprise of countering violent extremism just yet, but I am less sanguine about its chances of success than I was before I started working on the problem. Google Ideas’ summit has not increased my optimism, but its resources and potential do.
Alix Levine of Cronus Global attended the event, and reported back on her blog. I’ve commented briefly on McCants’ piece on FP, but wrote a longer piece as a comment on Alix’ blog, and am cross-posting it here in the hope that it will stir further discussion…
I’m comparing Will McCants‘ response to the Google Ideas conference on FP with yours, and I’m glad you wrote as you did.
McCants – whose work I generally admire — opens his comments by quoting Jared Cohen to the effect that the purpose of the conference was to “initiate a global conversation”. McCants then more or less dismisses the conference itself a couple paragraphs later with the words “If these are indeed the conclusions of the conference, Google Ideas needs more thinking and less doing in its approach”.
Conclusions? How does he get so quickly from “initiate” to “conclusions”?
Okay, we all know that a conference can lead to a volume of proceedings read mostly by the authors themselves and a few aspiring students eager to follow-my-leader and dead end there – but this conference was very clearly intended to be the start of something, not the wrap-up.
So your comment, Alix, “Instead of critiquing Google’s effort, it will be more productive and valuable to work in unison with Google on their mission to ‘initiate a global conversation'” seemed to me to bring us back to the actual intent Google had announced for the conference, and you reinforce that when you write, “I hope that more people will join in on the conversation in a meaningful and (gasp) positive way.”
My questions are: how and where do we do this?
There will have been contacts made at the conference that will lead to an exchange of emails, no doubt – but that’s not a global conversation.
Here are some of the problems I foresee:
(a) siloing: the conversation limiting itself to a few constituencies, each of which talks mainly among its own members, leading to
(b) group think: in which the widely assumed gets even more firmly entrenched as “wisdom”, with
(c) secrecy: meaning that potentially relevant information is unavailable to some or all participants, all of which add up to
(d) blind spots: topics and approaches that still don’t get the attention and exploration they deserve.
The solutions would need to include:
(a) networked diversity: by which I mean a structured means of getting the unpopular or minority opinion front and center (compare business brainstorming in which a facilitator ensures even the “quiet ones” get heard, and that even poor ideas are expressed without critique until a later, evaluative stage),
(b) contrariety: meaning that whatever ideas are “easily dismissed” get special attention, with
(c) transparency: meaning that whatever could be redacted and made partially available is made available, not (as in US Govt “open source” material, closely held), so that
(d) oddballs and outriders get to participate…
Jami Miscik who was Deputy Director for Intelligence at the time, caught my attention when she said in 2004, “Embrace the maverick”. Oddballs aka mavericks make the best contrarians, because they start from different premises / different assumption bases. Miscik accordingly invited science fiction and film writers to interact with her analysts at CIA, and found that when they did, they produced 80% already known ideas, 10% chaff, and 10% new and “valid” scenarios. But even then, “science fiction and screen writers” is a box…
Cross-fertilization, questioning of assumptions, passion, reverie, visualization, scenario planning, play – the number of strategies that could be employed to improve the chances of a successful new insight emerging are many and various – unkempt artists probably know some of them better than suits with high IQs and clearances, and Google clearly knows this, too…
I mean, what Google+ circles do any of us join, to join this global conversation? What twitter hashtag brings us together under one roof? When’s the follow up in my neck of the woods, or yours?
What’s the method for getting the conversation widespread, well-informed – and scaleable, so the best of the grass roots and local ideas can find their way to the influential and informed, and the best insights of the influential and informed can percolate through to the grass roots and local?
Lastly, I’d like to thank Google for getting a dialog going between those with a range of subjective experiences of radicalization, and those whose job it is to understand and thus be able to interdict it. Demonization never got the situation in Northern Ireland anywhere near peace – listening did.
And thank you too, Alix, for your own contribution. Let’s move the conversation onwards.