Consulting with Libya in 2007

Over the weekend, Evgeny Morozov asked about my consulting with the Libyan government in 2007. In March of that year, I was invited by Monitor Consulting to come to Boston to speak to a Libyan IT minister about using social software to improve citizen engagement in coastal towns. The idea was that those cities would be more economically successful if local policies related to the tourist trade were designed by the locals themselves. (I talked about that work briefly in this interview [28:30-30:30])

After the meeting in Boston, the imagined project didn’t materialize. I presume this was because the government choked on the inability to get the economic effects of citizen participation without getting the political effects as well, an idea they claimed to want but in fact didn’t.

Morozov also suggests that “anyone who thought they could democratize Libya via Wikis needs to make a public apology.” This is the same caricature he often uses, implying that people like me who think that social tools can improve outcomes actually believe that tools cause those outcomes. What we believed at the time was that Libya’s planned devolution of political power to individual towns was real; what we learned was that it wasn’t. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help expand representative government in Libya, but I’m not sorry I tried.

I am, in other words, exactly as naive as Morozov accuses me of being. As I’ve said elsewhere, the best reason to believe that social media can aid citizens in their struggle to make government more responsive is that both citizens and governments believe that.

23 Responses to “Consulting with Libya in 2007”

  1. Franky Says:

    Sure there is no connection to Gaddafi, Alex… And I really hope this conflict ends soon. Seems that all disasters have to come together.

  2. druidbros Says:

    @ William Carleton – Maybe we just have not achieved critical mass yet. And you must have enough people who care.

  3. Robert Hooker Says:

    This issue is not about if network technologies can or can not play a role in political movements, it is if Shirky was paid for his work with Libya.

    It has now been established that the monitoring consulting group was actually doing PR for Gaddafi and nothing more. The entire program was a cynical effort by the firm and related academics to make money off the fact that Gaddafi was rich and evil.

    Shirky needs to come clean utterly with what payments he received for his work, and how he could have imagined that he could have improved the situation in Libya with a technology project.

    Shirky’s own country men were killed by Gaddafi on several different occasions. If Shirky can not clarify this he can join Assange in the ranks of want to be cyber-activists we could all do without.

  4. Robert Hooker Says:

    Along with Jim the major question here is if you were paid for your work with Libya and if so how much.

    This post is not contrite enough given the evil regime you were involved with. You have no business pointing the fingers at anyone else right now if you were taking money from Libya.

    Frankly I don’t assume you were doing it for free, but your avoidance of the subject makes the hole worse.

    Every idea in your books has been had and written by another person and written in another book, don’t take the global communities forgiveness or understanding for granted. Also a lot of people have died recently because of Libya, and the regime got a lot of consulting from top level US and UK intellectuals, you being actually a fairly minor one.

    But as I see it you have no business but to make a full and total apology for this as a terrible mistake, without excuses. Failure to do so will only be used to further critic your ideas.

  5. Becca Pyne Says:

    I just thought you might (enjoy/be entertained?) by this and have some comments?


  6. sewa mobil Says:

    Nice article, thanks for the information.

  7. Michelle Says:

    I agree that the “best reason to believe that social media can aid citizens in their struggle to make government more responsive is that both citizens and governments believe that” is where the tipping point lies… and if it isn’t, then what hope do any of us have?

  8. Sherwin Says:

    “There’s no circumstance under which I would have taken money from the man who ordered the Lockerbie bombing — much less brag about it in my author bio on a book.”

    if you were able to take the bombers money, wouldn’t you have a moral obligation to do so?

    The point is not whether money is received or not. The money is merely evidence of the more important question, “did you help the bomber or not?” Taking money from the bomber is by itself actually helping to thwart the bomber’s plans. And taking money from the bomber to provide healthcare to the bomber’s neighbours is also fine. So of course what the money is for matters.

    I wish there was this much scrutiny of the dealings of Big Oil.

  9. Chris Dick Says:

    As a planet we have entered into a global social contract to, at some basic level, provide security to each other. This is the goal of a Chapter 7 intervention. Rwanda was a failure, there have been others.

    Technology alone may not be the “necessary and sufficient” cause to end global slaughters, that would be naive to think so, but that is also NOT what we ask of it.

    It is a tool, and when used effectively it can influence political will, exercised by the people of a non democratic regime it can create democratic results, in the interim, whether or not it brings about a full democratic revolution is not the goal.

    To try and spread and foster this idea is a noble cause. Paid or unpaid is irrelevant. Results matter.


  10. Rogers Cadenhead Says:

    “The way Jay Rosen framed this in his twt posting led me to believe that you were working with someone connected to Gaddafi.”

    Alex: He was working with an official of Gaddafi’s government — the Libyan IT minister is an official in that government. I appreciate Clay’s explanation, but I find it lacking. There’s no circumstance under which I would have taken money from the man who ordered the Lockerbie bombing — much less brag about it in my author bio on a book. I’m amazed at this abhorrent bit of news.

  11. Thursday « Protoblogger Says:

    […] Clay Shirky: Consulting with Libya in 2007. […]

  12. The Shirky-Marazov social media dispute turns ugly | the fifth wave Says:

    […] it time we learned what type of consulting Shirky has done for the Libyan govt?”  On his blog, Shirky explained that he had never done any, although he had met with representatives of the Libyan regime over a […]

  13. Jim Posner Says:

    I guess I am still confused as to whether your were paid by the Libyan government either directly or indirectly and if you were paid wouldn’t it be prudent to donate this money to a charity.

  14. Digidave Says:

    I was going to blame communism, global warming and the invention of murder on you and wiki’s too. I guess I’ll just save those accusations for later.

  15. Sherwin Arnott Says:

    The claim that networking technologies can play no part in developing democracies seems wrong. It was generally acknowledged that even the fax machine had something to do with the Berlin wall falling. Wasn’t it?

    I think there is this false assumption that goes unspoken often that democracy is an on or off state. But democracy, by most interesting counts, is a matter of degree or at least a matter of threshold. And this is why you need to include many factors into any analysis of democracy building. Seems to me that if you overlook wikis or forums or newer social media, or any technologies that gives people more control over their lives and relationships and ability to connect with each other, then you’re leaving out an important part of the analysis.

    That is partly why I think William Carleton’s big question is so interesting. On my view the amount or quality of democracy in, yes, even the USA, is not static. Rather, it’s dependent on many fluctuating variables, including the degree to which human rights are upheld, and even the practical online means that people are enabled to connect and share. But there are other, perhaps more important, factors, like congressional corruption, media slant,etc.

    For the record, and in passing, the right of workers to associate and join trade unions for the protection of their interests is declared in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: article 23. I mention this, because on my view, when this right is taken away, even in the U.S., it is reasonable to say that the amount or quality of democracy has been diminished.

    Actually, I think this is quite relevant. The capacity of workers to associate and network and bargain collectively is also a sort of networking technology. And I would want to include this technology in any analysis of whether a state, like Libya or the U.S., is sufficiently democratic or not.

  16. PeaceLove Says:

    I thought Morozov’s accusatory tone was ill-advised, especially since you explained yourself quite clearly in the interview you cite, which Morozov himself Tweeted a day or so ago. (I replied publicly that the interview was exculpatory.)

    As a denizen of Silicon Valley I’m probably even more of a tech utopian than you are but I think our views are pretty well grounded in the actual facts of the world. The rapid transition that is occurring towards democracy and openness is largely because people in oppressive regimes gained access to technology. You were absolutely right to try to insert more technology into Libyan society, whether or not you ultimately succeeded.

    Morozov owes you an apology for impugning your character without first learning all the facts.

    Jonathan Steigman

  17. noneck Says:

    great response. does @evgenymorozov fault “western” intellectuals for helping advance perestroika?

  18. William Carleton Says:

    Clay, on that last point, I can see why citizens in other countries believe that social media can be used to make government responsive and that governments of other countries fear social media for the same reason; but why is it social media makes almost no impact in reforming the broken political system in the United States? We still have lobbyists buying access and legislation, state legislatures redistricting by gerrymander, policy debate censored by ideology, etc. Why is social media used in the United States as just one more means of channel marketing, at least when it comes to politics?

  19. Catherine Fitzpatrick Says:

    I guess any of us could have told you that dancing with Libya would be a bad idea under any form, even in a form you believed was sanitized, like the IT minister.

    But more human rightsy folks than you by far have foundered on their path in Libya and should be doing some much, much bigger apologies than you because they had more credibility and more exposure. Anyone waltzing around with Qaddafi’s son, thinking he was a liberal, for example.

    All you have to do to answer this is to ask Zhenya what he is doing for his own homeland, Belarus, and what he is doing for the 40 plus people in jail right now, the leading intellectuals. That’s it.

    What’s troubling isn’t your philosopy about social media. What’s troubling is your philosophy of governance and chance in the first place, out of which your social media woo-woo grows. I’ve commented about this on your Foreign Affairs piece.

  20. Alex Says:

    The way Jay Rosen framed this in his twt posting led me to believe that you were working with someone connected to Gaddafi. I am now relieved that that is not all the case.

  21. Pietro Dettori Says:

    I really appreciate both yours and Morozov’s work. I think they are complementary.
    But in this case I just believe in your good intentions: it was absolutely right to try.

    Thank you for your clarification!

  22. Darren Says:

    You and Nelly Furtado, apparently. Heh:

  23. Tim Hardy Says:

    Morozov has a few very good ideas but spends way too much time stirring up controversy to generate attention for himself.

    I can’t be alone in wishing he spent that energy on developing his theses and looking for practical solutions to some of the problems he identifies.

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