Thursday, April 15, 2010

Diplomacy through Disintermediation?

The headline for yesterday evening's Politics and Law article for CNET News by Declan McCullagh was irresistible:

Meet Russian President Medvedev, Internet geek

Once we got past the Freudian slip of using Vladimir Putin's name in place of Dmitry Medvedev's, we got to the substance of the claim behind this headline:

During an appearance at the center-left Brookings Institution, the head of the Russian Federation suggested that he and President Obama should dispense with their legions of aides and chat on iPhones through text messaging instead.

"We don't e-mail each other (but) that would be the fastest possible way to talk to each other," said Medvedev, according to a translation. "In this case, we could just have a couple of iPhones and we could just exchange text messages or e-mails. I am quite familiar with that, as well as President Obama, as far as I understand." (Obama has a BlackBerry.)

Medvedev said he no longer starts his day by reading newspapers or watching television. Instead, he said, "I just go online and I find all of the things there," including "media that are favorable to the Russian president, media that hate the Russian president."

However, it was the following quote from Medvedev that most interested me:

We don't need our aides that much today. We can immerse ourselves into information...The time has changed. Whatever I read or President Obama reads, we always have the possibility to go online and see what is happening in reality. This doesn't mean that Internet is the final source of truth. But this is an alternative source of information.

It has been some time since I heard talk of disintermediation, particularly when that talk is advocating it at a time when we are beginning to wake up to its deleterious impact on the retail business. Still, this little remark provides us with a healthy reminder that "knowledge work" (if we wish to use that phrase in a manner that is not merely gratuitous) is not all about getting "immersed" in information. If we want to know "what is happening in reality," we need to interpret that information, not according to some abstract and absolute semantic analysis but in terms of how that information is embedded in the rich context of that reality we wish to apprehend, which is not objective but rather is socially constructed. This is never an easy matter; and anyone who participates in the highly sensitive conversations of statecraft must, of necessity, draw upon the expertise of aides to prepare for those conversations. Indeed, when statecraft is at stake, it may not be an exaggeration to say that every unit of "information" is subject to multiple interpretations reflecting the different contexts of differently hypothesized realities. One must prepare for a conversation with a sense of which of those realities are sympathetic to one's own needs and goals. This involves invoking the methods of Ian Mitroff, through which different perspectives of those realities duke it out with well-formed arguments as part of a process of critical inquiry that makes sense of all that "immersing" information.

There may be some virtue in the idea that Medvedev and Obama could text each other over casual matters having to do with dinner, the latest download from iTunes, or how the kids are doing in school. A conversation between two individuals, each of whom grants the basic humanity of the other, almost always makes more progress than a confrontation between adversaries. Even diplomacy can take advantage of little reminders of humanity, particularly when tensions need to be defused. However, the premise of mutual humanity only gets the conversation off to a good start and keeps it going. The substance of the conversation has more to do with reconciling differences in socially constructed realities and making decisions with such reconciliations in mind. From this point of view, the parties involved in conversation will always have to depend on aides when preparing strategies and tactics before the conversation begins.

No comments: