David Kirkpatrick wrote some notes about a session that I participated in at the Fortune Brainstorm conference. I have interspersed my comments in italics.
A Glimpse Inside Brainstorm
Which is more important: democracy or human rights? At a recent FORTUNE conference, international panelists debate.
By David Kirkpatrick
The talk at FORTUNE's recent Brainstorm 2002 event got pretty darn interesting, as businesspeople mixed it up with experts and thinkers from other domains. In one part of the Brainstorm program, each FORTUNE editor or writer moderated an hour-long session of 8-10 randomly assigned participants, with no set topic.
I scribbled down the following dialogue during mine, which included Glover Ferguson, chief scientist of Accenture; Joichi Ito, CEO of Japanese Internet company Neoteny; Fred Krupp, Executive Director of Environmental Defense; Jim Moore, Senior Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Xiao Qiang, Executive Director of Human Rights in China; Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch; Dave Roux, managing director of investment group Silver Lake Partners; and Fred Thompson, who manages Korn/Ferry's searches for top technology executives. The concentration of NGOs, human rights professionals, and men was coincidental. Much of the day had touched on issues of democracy, so that's where our conversation got started.
Ito: When we talk about democracy, I want to know the definition. Japan is not a democracy. If it were it would have become a communist state. Is there hypocrisy when the U.S. talks about democracy?
I was referring to the fact that after World War II, the US Occupation chose to back the old guard bureaucrats and gangsters to fend off Russian support for the Japanese left wing. The left wing sentiment was quite strong at the time and without this action, it is possible Japan would have swung quite far to the left. The US wanted a controllable non-communist state and this could not have happened if left to populist democracy.
[Ferguson mentions that Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's longtime leader, sometimes downplayed the importance of democracy.] Qiang: Why do people take him seriously? He just ran a city. Singaporeans who disagreed could always leave. In China they can't. Roth: The U.S. has been somewhat hypocritical. Democracy is a flexible term which can be used with more or less cynicism. Roux: Is democracy the bigger issue vs. climate change, economic development, poverty, etc.? Moore: Human rights? Roux: Not in my top ten. Roth: It's hard to address yours without it. But economic determinism has been refuted in China-there's been great evolution in personal freedoms but none in political freedoms. Development alone does not lead to human rights. Qiang: Look at the consumerism and materialism in China. It's devastating. Environmentally China is heading to disaster, and the political system has a lot to do with it. Moore: You need educated people concerned with long-term thinking. Ito: A lot of Americans are fooling themselves. There's a big difference between how they feel about the rights of citizens and those of non-citizens. What if all the countries of the world really participated in an intelligent dialogue and spoke up? Would that be considered good for the U.S? Roux: The U.S. has the opportunity to take the advantages it has in various dimensions and engage in horse trading--for instance, the way it helped get China into the WTO. Roth: The irony of this administration's position is that it rejects so many international treaties. In doing so they give up that advantage. It's shortsighted because the treaty rules are going ahead anyway. Krupp: Some talk of a new Marshall Plan to aid development, but what might be a realistic way to transfer wealth from rich to poor countries would be, for instance, to pay India to modify its power plants to be less polluting. [Some discussion ensues about the role of the Internet in economic development and companies like DevelopmentSpace, which enables a direct online connection between donors and philanthropic recipients in developing countries.] Krupp: The Internet is a tool that can allow us to do something like what Save The Children does, but in a very scaled-up way. It can tie into peoples' desire to have personal impact. Roth: The challenge for NGOs is not only to show that there is suffering out there, but also to show that you can do something about it. People are moved when they see suffering. You don't need to steer it back to self-interest. But if it doesn't directly relate back to U.S. concerns, CNN won't cover it. Ferguson: There's a long-term problem with the way humans are wired. We are wired to smash in the face of the bear at the door. Ito: [Making point that long-term action is not impossible.] Tokyo Station was built in 1914 to be used for 100 years, and it can still easily add new lines for new bullet trains. Moore: We have big problems that require macro approaches over a long time. Qiang: How do you show people that by doing something more long-term they're really making a difference? Ito: No one trusts the U.S. No one trusts the IMF. I'm not sure what the context was for this comment. I think the issue of trust, trustworthiness and knowing whether you are trusted is a big issue... It is not true that "no one" trust the US and IMF. Of course some people do. ;-) Moore: You could see the beginnings of a move toward global governance in some of the Internet domain-name management efforts. Thompson: The vast majority of people in the world are compassionate, and they care, but there's no means to bring that together. Ito: Global dialogue is a key. duh... People ended by praising Brainstorm as a method of moving in the right direction. Pierre Omidyar of eBay joined our table after his own broke up. We all talked about various ways of continuing the dialogue; Brainstorm's momentum was building. Fast Forward will return to talking about technology and its discontents in future installments. But I don't see Brainstorm as something separate. If we're going to understand the true importance of technology we have to see it in the context of what's happening in the world. That's the relationship between Brainstorm and Fast Forward, the two FORTUNE sub-brands I'm working so hard to develop.