Thanks to the revolutions happening in the Middle East, our leaders have been touting social media as the new force for democracy. President Obama went out of his way to schmooze Facebook employees this week. He told them that when it comes to solving the challenges our country faces and to precipitating changes in the rest of the world, they were “at the cutting edge of what’s happening”.
It’s great that Silicon Valley is getting all this love and affection. But could this attention end up killing the golden goose? Think about it: if you are an evil dictator, looking for an excuse to block Facebook and Twitter, what better propaganda weapon than a picture of President Obama getting chummy with Mark Zuckerberg? Yes, I know that the U.S. government didn’t invent Facebook or even figure out how to use it until recently; and that it doesn’t control Facebook’s policies. But don’t those pictures and video clips tell a different story?
While the President was visiting Facebook’s campus I was having lunch with Twitter founder Biz Stone. We discussed the pitfalls of entrepreneurs cozying up to government leaders. Biz clearly understands the good that his technology can do for the world, and the responsibilities that potential brings. He said that Twitter had developed stringent policies about what information they would release to any government or authority; the company keeps a distance. Biz believes that Silicon Valley’s role is to develop world-changing technologies, and to leave it to others to effect such change.
I agree with Biz. Rather than leveraging the PR opportunities that Silicon Valley affords, our government should instead focus on removing barriers to entrepreneurship in the U.S. and encourage entrepreneurship abroad.
As I have written in this piece, if the President really wants Silicon Valley to continue to lead the world, he should unconditionally support the Startup Visa (and clear the skilled-immigrant-visa backlog). Right now, the President is saying all the right things about the need for skilled immigrants, but is bundling this legislation in with other bills that have virtually no chance of passage. And he should fix government procurement systems so they are not rigged in favor of big contractors—who charge as much as a hundred times more to build and maintain computer systems and infrastructure than Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs would.
To encourage the spread of democracy and increase global economic prosperity, the President should apply the principles of Expeditionary Economics—which has been championed by Carl Schramm, president of the Kauffman Foundation.
In a nutshell, expeditionary economics is about reorienting economic development efforts away from the conventional wisdom, which usually fails on one of two bases. In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has (often out of necessity) taken the lead in trying to stimulate economic activity, the approach is typically to focus on large-scale projects, including infrastructure and the revival of state-owned enterprises. The “build it and they will come” mantra has failed, though, even in American urban-revival efforts. The second dismal convention of international development has been on painful display in the revelations this past week about Greg Mortenson, adored author of the book Three Cups of Tea and purported savior of a myriad of Afghan and Pakistani villages. It turns out that Mortenson not only fabricated parts of his story but also misappropriated charitable funds. Whatever comes of this, Mortenson\’s work and the accolades he received for it typify the expiatory nature of Western development aid: it is a redemption narrative played out across the world, as sainted Westerners bring relief to the benighted hordes.
Lost in both of these dimensions is precisely what drives economic growth in most of the world: entrepreneurship, and the efforts of individuals to take their futures into their own hands and create something new. The emerging field of expeditionary economics seeks to reorient international development toward the promotion and support of entrepreneurship.
We’ve seen how Silicon Valley can help change the world. Facebook and Twitter were the tools used for fomenting revolutions; a prominent Google employee played a large role in organizing demonstrations in Egypt; advanced cell-phone and security technologies are allowing people to overcome government controls. Let’s do more of this. But let’s do it without government involvement and without the photo ops.