Saturday, May 29, 2010

Engagement Ring

While I was in Washington D.C. for Gov 2.0 Expo, I enjoyed meeting open source and public engagement advocate Molly Moran of the State Department. At the Expo, some complained that I was too critical of State Department efforts in e-government, even though I only devoted one slide to the subject and limited my criticism to only one aspect of what I thought was a largely successful adoption of Twitter by the group, so I hope that I am setting the record straight when it comes to a branch of government that tends to attract the best and the brightest of federal employees.

As this State Department posting on Applying the Tools of 21st Century Statecraft to Public Engagement explains, the new media discussion group included Andrew Cedar, Katie Dowd, Luke Forgerson, Suzanne Hall, Darren Krape, Duncan MacInnes, Bill May, Cash McCracken, Molly Moran, Lawrence Randolph, Victor Riche, Aaron Tarver, Erica Thibault, Scott Weinhold, and Norma Williamson. I had presented on a panel about diplomacy in virtual worlds at the State of Play conference with May last year and had followed the work of many others in the group.

The blog entry summarizes the wide range of subjects addressed by the project:

Under Secretary Judith McHale recently convened a series of discussions and asked State Department colleagues to move public diplomacy forward in innovative ways. These discussions focused on several activities, including everything from student exchanges to English-language teaching programs . . . Engaging the public -- going beyond government to government communication -- has long held a place in American diplomacy, from the Marshall Plan following World War II to sports exchanges during the Cold War. Today, new tools and technologies enable us to reach more people, more quickly, more directly, than ever before, and activity in the online world is already having a tangible impact on foreign policy priorities . . . Given these examples, how would you use new media tools to engage the public on critical foreign policy topics and global issues? Let us know your ideas, and we look forward to sharing them with State Department colleagues and leadership.

My only gripe with the State Department's call for public feedback on the initiative was the illustration used as the banner image, a photo of a woman in a headscarf at a PC workstation. The image of women in headscarves interacting with technology has become a sort of stock image of Western liberalism that may be more subject to misinterpretation than Americans may imagine. It isn't always the universal signifier of female empowerment that those in public diplomacy consider it to be. As Fran├žois Bar has cautioned in talks detailing his large-scale multi-year studies of public computing practices abroad, U.S. citizens should be wary of their own biases about both individual consumer technologies and the relationship between gender, space, and technology.

(For example, why does this woman have to have a man on the screen? Why isn't it more obvious that she is in a social computing setting with a numbered carrel, perhaps a cybercafe with sex-segregated hours? How would the image be different if she were shown on-the-go with her computing done on a mobile device? Why isn't she interacting with other women either as an "infomediary" or as one who benefits from their knowledge? Where is her family? Where is her community? Americans don't ask these questions, but other people in the world do.)

For more about experiments done in the State Department, you can see this Mashable article about the use of new media in diplomacy and other forms of transnational outreach by the government.

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