Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Enlightenment and Strategic Persuasion

I'm going to start with a little disclaimer. I'm self-interestedly pro-Google. They develop useful tools and let me use them for free. They read my email. They know which RSS feeds I read. They know when and where I'm having a meeting tomorrow. But I'm ok with that. If they think they can make money by keeping track of what I do online, then they have my permission to try.

Anyway, now that you all know how I feel about, I want to lay down a train of thought that begins with (while turning into a hyperlink feels totally normal, I just can't bring myself to do it with; internet neuroses strike again).

I recently read an article by Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of, about how he and his colleagues determined his organization's points of philanthropic focus. According to Dr. Brilliant, there are three reasons chose the five initiatives on which it is now working. One, Dr. Brilliant and his colleagues feel that each initiative has high potential to do meaningful things for the very weakest and very poorest people in the world. Two, they consider each initiative an idea big, scalable, and multi-faceted enough for Google's ambitious tastes. And, three, they think the initiatives are the kinds that will benefit especially well from support from Google technology, Google expertise, and Google people.

Thinking about this again now, I realize that there's nothing particularly unusual about those reasons. Perhaps simply because of my aforementioned affinity for Google, however, Dr. Brilliant's article intrigued me enough to pull me to the website.

I browsed around what is a very straightforward and non-frilly site. I read about each of the five initiatives. I linked for the first time to Hans Rosling's YouTube channel. I had a look at the blog. And I found some footage from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago...

Two videos. The first is a panel discussion. Tom Friedman moderates Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Larry Brilliant as they talk about and climate change. The second is the Q&A session that followed the discussion. Al Gore, Van Jones, John Doerr, and others ask some very intense questions. And, in my opinion, Larry, Sergey, and Dr. Brilliant all sound both surprisingly candid and impressively knowledgeable.

I think you'll enjoy watching every minute of both videos, but I understand that asking people to watch nearly an hour and a half of discussion and Q&A is a bit much, so I'll give my highest recommendation to minutes 23-34 of the Q&A video.

At the center of those 11 minutes is Al Gore "gently" taking issue with the approach,"gently" taking issue with Larry Brilliant's faith in what Al calls the "enlightenment model:" the belief that when people have access to all the information, most of them will do the right thing. Al thinks the world used to work that way, but he thinks it doesn't work that way anymore. In his opinion, the rules of the game changed when the tobacco companies realized that they could use "strategic persuasion campaigns" to give everyone the impression that there existed a real scientific debate about whether or not there were health risks associated with tobacco. Cold, hard, well-disseminated truth alone doesn't do the job anymore. Exxon Mobil funds 40 front groups to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," and, according to Al, the truth can only win if it actively resists that repositioning, if it launches strategic persuasion campaigns of its own.

Have a look, and decide for yourselves, but I think Dr. Brilliant responds well. He's appropriately realistic. He says that wants to participate in solving the world's problems by contributing Google's core competency, and he reminds us that Google's core competency is information filtering and truth search much more than it is persuasion.

It's a fascinating discussion, and, of course, I can't help but wonder how my responsible consumption brand comparison project fits in. Am I about to launch an enlightenment model project in a world of strategic persuasion? Yikes. But there's enough going on in this post already, and it won't hurt me to spend another day thinking about it, so I'll stop here for now. Hopefully I'll have some grand revelations for you tomorrow.

Note: One more plug for the videos: Sergey Brin is not afraid to wear pants that are way too short for him.


Morgan Morgan said...

Okay, this is uber-late to be commenting on this post, but I'd like to recommend Yochai Benkler's _The Wealth of Networks_ on this one. This book is why I agree with you and Larry Brilliant and disagree with Al Gore. As I think you realize through your blogging, the internet has changed "strategic persuasion" in many ways. If someone is worrying about their smoking nowadays, they can actively Google "smoking effects" instead of passively accepting the results of the tobacco industry's ad campaign. They can blog and comment about the effects of smoking or green technology or whatever else. The internet has the potential to be an incredible equalizer. Of course, there is the whole issue of over four-fifths of the world not having regular access to the internet, but that's for another day.

Again, my apologies for such a late comment.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Michael.

Never too late. Comments are great, whenever they come. Especially when they include recommendations.

The Wealth of Networks. I'll check it out.

Good call on the fact that there's a huge income gap related technology and info gap. OLPC might help?

Thanks again.