The introductory section of this recent essay in the London Review of Books paints a disturbing nexus between the US government and major web companies. They seem worryingly comfortable assisting US foreign policy goals. Putting a nice, sexy face to occupation. Beware:
On a balmy evening in April 2009 Barham Salih, then deputy prime minister of Iraq, sat in the garden of his Baghdad villa while a young internet entrepreneur called Jack Dorsey tried to persuade him that he needed to be on Twitter. Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, was in Baghdad at the invitation of the State Department. Over the previous three days, he and eight other Silicon Valley bigwigs, kitted out with helmets and flak jackets, had been bundled around Baghdad in an armoured convoy, meeting anyone there was to meet. They’d been introduced to the prime minister’s council of advisers, glad-handed the Iraqi Investment National Commission and spoken to a group of engineering students from Baghdad University; they’d even had time to fit in a visit to the Iraqi National Museum. Among them were several high-ranking engineers from Google, the founder of the community organising tool Meetup, a vice-president of the firm behind the blogging platform WordPress, and an executive from Blue State Digital, the internet strategy firm that had done a fair bit to help Obama to the presidency the previous November.
The person getting all the attention was Dorsey, because by then Twitter was all anyone wanted to talk about. In fact one reason we know so much about the trip is that Dorsey and his colleagues spent much of their time tweeting about it, sending news of their journey in electronic haiku to their followers back home. ‘Lots of helicopters,’ Dorsey observed on his Twitter feed: ‘Met the president of Iraq. Amazing palace.’ In another tweet, he tells his followers that he’s been ‘talking to Iraqis to figure out if technologies like Twitter can help bring transparency, accessibility and stability to the area’. When he finds a wi-fi network in the presidential palace, he says how happy he is to be back online: ‘Catching up on the rest of the world.’ ‘Lots going on out there!’ he writes. Barham Salih’s inaugural tweet was less upbeat: ‘Sorry, my first tweet not pleasant; dust storm in Baghdad today & yet another suicide bomb. Awful reminder that it is not yet all fine here.’
This was the first time the US government had organised a new media delegation to a country in the Middle East. The idea was to introduce the minds behind America’s internet start-ups to the movers and shakers who were going to rebuild Iraq, but as Dorsey’s excitable tweets indicated, the audience back home was just as important.