Alec Ross: A Lecture on the Age of Innovation

By Jolie Tran
Undergraduate Student

Lecture by Alec Ross: November, 2015

“He who has access to data and information will have control to the political and economic worlds of the technological age.”

Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s former Senior Advisor for Innovation, came to the University  in November to share his story and his vision for  technology in the future. Ross was born and raised in West Virginia, in a blue collared neighbourhood, where the local environment fostered a passion for the community. After Ross graduated from Northwestern University, he took a teaching job at Baltimore instead of  working for a  private firm. In 2000, Ross founded an NGO named One Economy, which would turn out to be his first toehold to working at the White House.

Ross served the technology team of President Obama’s first presidential campaign. He was then recruited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who created a position called Senior Advisor of Innovation. In under found years working in the White House, Ross carried out numerous projects to help the community through the internet. The most eye-catching project was a consequence of the Haiti earthquake; Ross and his team managed to raise $40 million (£27.7 million) within two weeks by taking people’s donations through their phones and  the advertising was mainly through Twitter and Facebook. The humble cost remained just $19 (approximately £13).

Ross went on to discuss the influence  of technology  and how it has shaped our society. The most prominent point is that the rise of technology has redistributed geopolitics power within the system. This is not necessarily the shift of power from the global North to the global South or the West to the East, but rather from hierarchies like the government and large corporations to individuals and networks of citizens. As a result, the growth of today’s political movements such as the Anti-SOPA or the Middle East revolutions are enlarged and accelerated. Our information market is enriched as hierarchies have less control over what we can see.

This is not necessarily the shift of power from the global North to the global South or the West to the East, but rather from hierarchies like the government and large corporations to individuals and networks of citizens.

Amidst the winds that brought by technology in the 21 century, our viewpoints on certain issues have changed. As Ross puts it, “norms have shifted.” In 2004, current Secretary of State John Kerry believed that his support towards gay marriage might have cost him the presidential campaign. Yet 11 years later, gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states of the U.S. We are living through an era of information, every day we immerse ourselves in an ocean of information and this has somewhat made us more open-minded and compassionate.

However, the rise of technology has been  a double-edged sword. As the internet acts as a catalyst for propaganda, it has transformed the way in which we receive information and the way in which we behave. This also brought the threat of terrorism to a new level. Terrorists can now easily publish and assemble the information that they wish in hope of recruiting new supporters or simply posing a threat. The governments, on the other hand, actively look to prevent this phenomenon. It’s a constant battle with where the internet is a battleground.

However, as Ross puts it, “the 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak.” Most of those who push back technology for the sake of cybersecurity believe that liberty and security are the opposite of one another. The more you have of the former, the less you have of the latter. Yet, according to Ross, they are dependent variables as they strengthen each other’s equity. In order to secure cyberspace, we must learn to work with it rather than to break it, as the internet can prove to be a reliable agent in terms of protecting civilians.

“The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak,” Ross said.

During his time under Hillary at the U.S. Department of State, Ross was a part of numerous projects in which his knowledge and experience in working with technology played an essential role. The example Mr. Ross gave involved a coalition with the British government. In this project, he was trying to create a secure communications network in Syria so that communications with high valued organizations and individuals could not be intercepted from unwanted listeners. This encrypted communications network has allowed the U.S. and the U.K. to develop and enact more strategic plans within this conflict region.

He has played a key role in the ongoing conflict in Syria as his technological expertise has allowed him to have a say in the key operations. He certainly ranks in a position of power at the U.S. Department of State, although that is not to say that he hasn’t learned from his superiors. As one of the most eminent female political figures in the history of the United States, Hillary has certainly been an advocate for female empowerment in both politics and the private sector to be more active in positions of power. Ross shares the same belief as  Clinton that female empowerment not only promotes morality and equality in our nation, but it is also beneficial to our economy as well. According to a study by Goldman Sachs that  Ross quoted in his speech; the GDP of the U.S. would rise by nine percent had the country narrowed down its barrier to include women in the workforce and the figure would be 14 percent for the Eurozone and APEC countries such as China and South Korea.

Ross shares the same belief as  Clinton that female empowerment not only promotes morality and equality in our nation, but it is also beneficial to our economy as well.

When asked about the future of the internet, Ross speaks with an optimistic tone. He predicts that 2016 has the potential of being the  year when the majority of the people on Earth will be using the internet. Not only will the way we communicate change, but also the way in which our industries work will alter. Following Ross’s discussion with Foxconn, he learned that the corporation wishes to put a stop to hiring human labour and investing more in robots. Despite the fact that it might cost approximately $20,000 (approximately‎ £13,800) to build a robot, this potential employee will work 24/7, will take no maternal leave and will demand no bathroom breaks all the while producing more output. Human workers, on the other hand, might be cheaper in the short run but will cost more in the long run.

If the rise of technology has the capability to replace workers, what other industries will it transform? If the future big companies that  contribute greatly to the national GDP are now being built in the garages in the Silicon Valley by 28 year-olds, would  global wealth be less widely distributed in the years to come?

The answer, of course, lies in the hands of the future. The attitude that Ross hopes for us, is the courage to take risks and remain fearless, as only then will the age of innovation persists.

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