Booting Up Baghdad

By Levy, Steven | Wired, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Booting Up Baghdad


Levy, Steven, Wired


BOOTING UP BAGHDAD

ON A STATE DEPARTMENT MISSION TO IRAQ, A DELEGATION OF SILICON VALLEY EXECS ARE SERVED COUNTLESS CUPS OF TEA AND GALLONS OF KOOL-AID. YET THEY STILL MANAGE TO COME HOME WITH THEIR IDEALISM INTACT.

As the CEO of meetup, Scott Heiferman usually spends his days meeting with staff and brainstorming product strategy. But today the 37-year-old New Yorker, wearing a combat helmet and armored vest over a black business suit, is crammed into a battered C-130 transport plane headed for Iraq. Military and diplomatic personnel aboard are warily eyeing him and the others in his party, all similarly attired, as the C-130 begins its steep, corkscrew descent into the Baghdad airport. And Heiferman is thinking, What am I doing here?

It's only been a few weeks since he got an email from a State Department policy planner named Jared Cohen inviting him to join the first tech delegation to post-invasion Iraq. Now he's strapped in with eight other Silicon Valley executives, mostly in their thirties, from Google, Twitter, YouTube, Blue State Digital, WordPress, Howcast, and AT&T. When Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey got his invitation, I just said yes, he recalls. YouTube's director of product management, Hunter Walk, had to go down to his basement to find a suit to wear, because Cohen insisted that the group dress like diplomats to show respect for their hosts. Others worked their spouses for approval, repeating Cohen's assurances that the security situation in Baghdad was much improved. Howcast CEO Jason Liebman's mother thinks he's on a trip to LA.

When the plane lands, Heiferman, Dorsey, Liebman, and the rest meet Tony, an ex-Marine straight out of central casting who will head their security team. Is everyone's insurance paid up? he jokes, then adds confidently, I will get you out alive. He tells them that if a rocket bomb lands nearby, they should hit the floor with mouths open so the explosion doesn't shatter their eardrums.

Before the implications of that can sink in, the execs are aboard a pair of helicopters racing vertiginously 150 feet over collapsed buildings, desert-camouflage Humvees, and the muddy rivers that once cradled civilization. It's like being plunged into the dense, dizzying pixels of an Xbox game. Ten minutes later, the birds land in the US Embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone (officially renamed the International Zone), and the Americans find themselves in a windy parking lot, desert sand stinging their faces. Now they'll confront the question behind this visit: Can Iraq be saved by meetups, Web searches, tweets, blogs, and YouTube videos?

The previous evening, Cohen, the 27-year-old State Department tyro who dreamed up the trip, laid out the agenda over dinner at a restaurant in Amman, Jordan. Up to that point, his fellow diners had been told little more than this: We are looking to integrate new technology more broadly into our foreign policy objectives.

Cohen is a former Condoleezza Rice protg now thriving under Hillary Clinton. Between puffs of flavored tobacco smoke drawn from a hookah, he explains that using technology to spread democracy has become a cornerstone of what diplo-nerds are calling 21st-century statecraft. Cohen chose this group for several reasons: to expose them to the changed reality of Iraq so they could spread the word back home, to inspire Iraqis to pursue capitalism with the fervor of a tech startup, and to initiate a few projects that will actually help Iraq rebuild. David Nassar, a VP at Blue State Digital which handled online aspects of Barack Obama's campaign is along to offer ideas on elections. Raanan Bar-Cohen, vice president of Automattic (the company behind WordPress), is an advocate for blogging and the open source movement. Richard Robbins, AT&T's director of social innovation (a title he invented), represents the big mobile firms. And there are three people from Google (including YouTube's Walk) because well, because it's Google. …

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