Irene Wu


You define yourself as an expert on communications, technology around the world, and its international politics and global history. What does that mean exactly?

I am really interested in talking about putting current technology developments in a broader historical perspective. I think that very often in the news when we hear that a particular social media application was very influential in a particular protest or particular uprising it feels like it’s a brand new thing. I've had the opportunity to go back and look at historical archives and at past research on the telephone and the telegraph when they were brand new. They had a similar transformative effect. And that's why it's important to look back on previous experience. A lot of work has been done on the impact of technology in different countries - you can really see that there are mostly similarities, but there are some unique characteristics depending on the political context or the particular culture of society and how they worked.

Can you maybe give one concrete example? When text messaging was new for instance, how did it change foreign policy?

In the 1990s, the Philippines was the leading country in the world in terms of text messaging. Because it was so widespread, it had a really pivotal role in ousting then-President Joseph Estrada in 2001. He had tried to suppress news reporting to a greater extent than previous presidents. People started to not only rely on the newspapers for their information, they started signed up for text message bulletins. At some point, the corruption problems with the Estrada administration got so severe that people started relying on these unofficial text bulletins to listen to instructions to go out into the street - eventually they ousted the president. The great storyteller Vicente Rafael recounts how phones kept protestors in the groove in 'The cell phone and the crowd: messianic politics in the contemporary Philippines' (Public Culture, vol. 15, no.3).

Looking further back... how did the telegraph change things?

In Chinese political culture it's tradition that, when you want something to change in the government, you sign a petition and present it to the emperor. When the telegraph was invented in the 19th century, people started using the telegraph to get signatures for these petitions. They would then be printed in the newspaper. That's how the Imperial court would see the petitions.

Traditionally, you would have to go to Beijing and carry your piece of paper up to the Court. With the introduction of the telegraph, these petitions would come in from across the country. Some of them even came in across oceans. It went from four to six weeks to getting a petition to Beijing to less than a week. Zhou Yongming tells the tale of how activists blocked Empress Cixi in Historicizing online politics: telegraphy, the Internet, and political participation in China (Stanford, 2006).

How is social media different?

Because of the richness of information that people are able to find out about each other on social media, it's much quicker to develop connections with other people that you might not have been able to reach. Yet a lot of connections are made with new technology, but little changes politically: people follow movie stars or pass along gossip for example.

Sometimes in a community, even if it's a community that has nothing to do with politics, there might come a moment where someone says, "I'm really sick and tired of this mayor. We should do something about it." You can convert what is a non-political community to a political community. There's an opportunity with social media to have different people connected to each other.

The work of online activist is as hard as it is for the activist in the street. It's not guaranteed to work because of technology. A lot of human interaction and trust building has to take place. In Forging Trust Communities I tell the story of some online volunteers who originally organised a literary festival but turned their group in to a humanitarian helpline when a big tsunami hit South and Southeast Asia.

How do you think it's going to evolve?

It's hard to say. I've been studying this area for 20 years and every few years something comes up that's really, really big. Then in five years, it's gone. I remember when MySpace was very, very important. Then it was supplanted by Facebook. Twitter has been around for 10 years and it's still evolving.

How do you work on new technologies and their potential impact?

I try to think about communication in a couple of different layers. I think about the infrastructure that's necessary for it to work, the companies that have to invest in it, and the governments that are regulating it (or may not be regulating it, if it's really new).

When you start to break down the elements, you can compare it to what came before. Then you can see if it differs from place to place, from situation to situation, and from user to user.

In your new book, you cover how technology changes politics. Why did you decide to write it?

With Forging trust communities: how technology changes politics, I felt there was a need for a book that made it easier to look at historical cases of how technology has changed politics. For understanding international politics, these new technologies in the last couple of decades have really underscored the importance of information as a source of political power for governments. I wanted to explore that further.

What was the biggest challenge in writing it?

As I have two other jobs, finding the time to write it! For people who are interested in writing in areas related to foreign policy and international relations, there's a lot of freedom to think about big ideas and play with different kinds of information but you have to be able to manage your time and make sure that you move forward.

What's your writing process like?

This is academic writing. The first thing I do is to investigate what's been written before. Then I see if somebody else has already answered the question in my mind. Then I find the gap in the literature, where something hasn't been done that really needs to be done. That's really the beginning, to focus on doing something useful with the writing. After that, basically, I have to decide on a method.

The method I usually use is case studies. I'll identify a bunch of case studies and then see what I can learn about them. Not all the case studies work out, because you don’t have enough information or they turn out not to be appropriate. From there, I derive lessons or other kinds of models and concepts and try to work on that.

The practical process is that you have to sit down every day for 30 minutes if you can manage. Make sure that you make progress every day.

Who is your target public with the book?

People interested in technology but haven't thought about its history before and want an easily digestible version.

Another public I have is students. The book is put together to be an easy reference for people teaching classes on technology who want a summary of how it's been used in different places at different times. I talk about the Arab Spring, about what's happened in Brazil with different elements of their infrastructure, about Russia and the development of its computer technology in the 1960s and so on.

You said you hold two jobs. So including writing, that's three jobs. How do you juggle everything?

When I look at my day, I think about what's the most important thing to do. Then I try not to worry about things that are less important. Especially in the office job that I have at the Federal Communications Commission. I'm in the international bureau there. I'm the senior analyst. That kind of job, there's a lot of opportunity to spend your time just fixing things here and there, some of which may be important, other things less so. If you are thinking about your time management, prioritise whatever is most important to you in terms of moving the work forward or what is most intellectually challenging for you. Make time for that in your day and then don’t worry so much about a lot of other things that can be happening. The copy machine is breaking down. There are window cleaners outside your office. Just try to let that go.

Is it quite common in foreign policy to have multiple jobs?

It's been my observation that it is quite common. When I look at my colleagues here in Washington, D.C., people are trying out different things and it's a process of finding out what you like to do and what you feel you have an expertise in. Some of these jobs are real paying jobs. Others aren't, but they are things that people love to do, and they take them very seriously. They devote a lot of time to them and they make real contributions. I think those are important jobs, too. Professionally, I think all these kinds of interests do promote your career in the end.

You're also a professor at Georgetown University. What do you teach there?

I teach on the Communications, Culture, and Technology programme at Georgetown University, which is a great Masters programme. I teach a class related to international communications. The seminar I'm teaching this semester is based on the research that I did for the Forging Trust Communities book. I'm taking graduate students through the various steps of how to look at different cases. Then they each get to pursue cases that are of interest to them, do some research and some investigations of those.

Justice Sotomayor recently said we needed more people of different background, including education, on SCOTUS. What do you think? 

In government, they do want people from different backgrounds. That includes different educational backgrounds and different institutions. I think that is very important because there is a tendency for people who have gone to the same school to nominate people who are from the same school for roles. You do have to work harder if you're in such a position to nominate other people to look further afield.

There is another level of diversity in the universities themselves, when they take applicants from the broader student pool, that they also had a responsibility to pull from a diverse demographic background. I know in the United States there's been a lot of research done into how to better do this.

In the US, the financial aid process is extremely complicated. However, if a student from a low-income background is able to get into an Ivy League institution, they might pay less tuition than if they went to their public university. There's progress being made on making that simpler for students who qualify.

Of course, one is not defined by one's university education. What you do and what you've done with your experiences hopefully that matters as well.

You’re a fellow at Foreign Policy Interrupted. What does that entail?

The fellowship at Foreign Policy Interrupted is a kind of media training for those of us who have expertise in a particular region of the world or a particular subject matter. They're focused on helping us reach more people with our expertise through the news media and through promoting myself.

The reason I had that slogan on my website is because they advised to put something there. Hopefully hints and tips like that help. The other thing that I can see being very valuable is simply getting to know these women better. All of them have expertise that's different from mine. They're at different stages of their careers. They're at different places in the world. Any time you have an opportunity to work with people that you like and respect but know something different from you, that's such a great thing.

You've been a fellow on a few programmes, including with Yahoo! and National Security Education Program. What do you find fellowships generally bring you?

Those two fellowships were a little bit different. The National Security Education Program Fellowship (now known as the Boren Fellowship) was a grant that enabled me to go to China and do some field work for my PhD dissertation. That was extremely important because to complete the dissertation, you really need to spend time investigating on the ground whatever subject matter, whatever country that you're doing there.

The Yahoo! Fellowship was a research fellowship that I had to study at Georgetown University for a year. I took a year off from my government job and spent a year on the Georgetown Campus. They gave me a tiny desk in an office that I shared with other people. I was given free time to investigate whatever I wanted.

Why did you decide to study technology?

I finished my master's degree in the mid 1990s at Johns Hopkins SAIS. The internet was growing rapidly and I thought it would be an interesting thing to go into. Then I happened to get a job when the internet really took off and then crashed very suddenly in 2001. I've gotten to see a lot of market developments and I've continued to be interested in it ever since. It's a bit of serendipity really.

What's the biggest change you've seen in terms of technology and how it affects us?

I think what's remarkable to me is how quickly institutions that seem to have been around forever can change. They can be completely undermined by a competitor in the space of five to 10 years. Likewise, small companies that seemed relatively insignificant can become major factors in people's lives in the same period of time. Looking at the technology sector compared to others, you really see that change rapidly. That means there can be a lot of change in society and people can improve their lives for the better very quickly if things go well. That makes policy regulation very important. That means understanding impact of technology is quite important as well.

Last question because we're talking on Skype: what impact has Skype had in terms of foreign policy and society? 

Generally, the more international communication feels like a real face-to-face conversation, the easier it is for people to get to know each other. To give you an example from my teaching, in a 13-week class, instead of meeting every week, we only meet four times in the semester. In between, the face-to-face meetings, I have a lot of video conferences with each of my students.

It makes it possible for me to stay in touch with them wherever they are, usually in the city but they could be abroad. They can still keep up with the work. On the one hand, it's really new that we all don't have to go to campus and meet at office hours. On the other hand, this kind of conversation we're having is as old as time. The kind of conversation that I have with my students that's the same kind of tutoring that Socrates and Confucius did. There's nothing new about that but technology just makes it possible to do it with different people and you don't have to be in the same place. It's really a great change.

Irene Wu | Expert on communications technology around the world, its international politics and global history

23 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied PhD and MA in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) | BA in Social Studies at Harvard University

Previously worked at Federal Communications Commission | US-ASEAN Council for Business and Technology | U.S. House of Representatives | Far Eastern Economic Review

Find Irene online Personal website | Twitter | 
LinkedIn | YouTube

Inspired by Irene's career? Here are some related opportunities Jobs with Federal Communications Commission | Jobs with US-ASEAN Council for Business and Technology | Employment information with the U.S. House of Representatives

Reading list Forging Trust Communities: How Technology Changes Politics | From Iron Fist to Invisible Hand: The Uneven Path of Telecommunications Reform in China

Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, April 2016