The advent of the Internet, and the sending of the first "email," back in the 1980s, was the first step in transforming modern human communication. Those first messages, which represented a more efficient way of communication, were the beginning of a transformation. Now, just 30+ years later, more than 100 trillion emails are sent each year. Unsurprisingly, whether we look back to the carrier pigeons of the Persian armies, Augustus Caesar's "postal system" in Ancient Rome, or even the Pony Express of 19th-century America, human civilization is always looking for an easier and faster way to share ideas, emotions, news, and life experiences. Communication allows us to break the boundaries of distance and geography, ultimately making our world smaller.
So, while this relatively newfound and ever-evolving capability is clearly an incredibly positive advancement, it also has a far-reaching (and often uncontrollable) influence across our lives. One area that clearly has seen its impact, especially recently, is governance. It has enabled the toppling of decades-old dictators during the Arab Spring and the empowerment of 90 million bloggers across China (just to name a couple). But, while the impact of instant and broadly-accessible communication might be seemingly obvious in the environment of an authoritarian state, what does it mean for a democracy? And, ultimately, how does it influence our public policy here in the U.S.?
From a news perspective, this new era of communication has totally transformed the way information is gathered and reported. Long gone are the days of the 6 o'clock news hour and the reading of the morning paper, in favor of Twitter and the 24-hour cable news cycle. The proliferation of sources from which news is now created has been a total paradigm shift. Now, the voice of a blogger and a Twitter handle is equivalent (and even in some cases bigger) to that of a major news organization. And, the competition to be the first reporting "breaking news" has never been fiercer. Most strikingly though, and often not mentioned, is the impact this has on our public policy.
For instance, it was first reported in mid-March 2011 that Muammar Gaddafi was undergoing a challenge to his authority by militant rebels. Just days later, numerous media outlets and other political leaders began to challenge the Obama administration to make a "go/no-go" decision on assisting the ousting of an on-again, off-again, ally in the region. Headlines explicitly called Obama an 'indecisive military leader' and accused him of "pushing [Secretary of State] Clinton over the edge."
It's a strange environment when the media and public expect perfect decision-making, yet become too impatient to let their political leaders gather information, explore diplomatic channels and dialogue, and devise appropriate response scenarios. Major events and decisions require strategic planning that speaks to America's collective interests, not short-term political gain or increased TV ratings. As a point of reference, ending the Cold War and eventually the mutual draw down of long-rage anti-ballistic missiles in 1987 was not something that happened overnight or without patience. Through multiple efforts and channels, including the famous 1986 meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev, the U.S. was able to achieve a long term and strategically significant resolution. Today, I'm not so sure the media environment would permit such a long developing outcome. Is this need to fill a content void and the competition to be the "first" to advance a certain viewpoint in the media putting undue political pressure on our leaders?
An example from just the last couple of weeks is the rushed response to the situation of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist who escaped from house arrest. It was only a matter of days between his escape and "release" back to a Chinese hospital -- but why so fast? Certainly the imminence of the SED (Strategic and Economic Dialogue) played a role, but to what degree did media pressure force the Administration's hand? Would our interests have been better served if we had let the situation play out over a longer period of time?
However, while we are often quick to point fingers, let's also be sure to recognize that pushing issues to the forefront of the public's attention can positively impact the broader discourse. Last week, for instance, the media's continued focus on Vice President Biden's comments supporting gay marriage was the catalyst for President Obama to finally confirm his position on the issue. No matter your stance, it's clearly a great outcome to have a better sense of our Commander in Chief's thinking. Even more importantly, for the first time in history, the loudest voice in the country put his support behind gay marriage.
So, here we are: a world of commentators, Tweeters, bloggers, and citizens with one of the most powerful tools developed in the history of mankind (the Internet) at our fingertips, literally, but how do we plan to use it? And, what is our collective responsibility? It's clearly valuable to push ideas forward that deserve attention, but just as important that we don't force our political leaders to make short-term tactical decisions at the expense of long-term strategic goals. Remaining the envy of the world requires constant innovation and thought-leadership -- it's something we've done since our country was founded, so let's make sure we don't use technology to our detriment.
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