There’s only one reason to do a story on Jared Cohen: He’s fascinating.
I’m a paper devotee. If you e-mail me a message, I’m going to print it out. If you want me to edit something, put a pencil in my hand. At the moment, like most moments, I am surrounded by paper—stacked, posted, filed, splayed.
I am of Generation X—as in an X-shaped support beam under the high-speed bridge between the baby boomers, who transformed and dominated American culture (think The Beatles, political street protests, and mocha lattes), and Generation Y, the group born of the boomers, who, like nouveau revolutionaries, are racing headlong across a digital global terrain of unprecedented citizen empowerment held in their palms.
So it was a dismal evening when I heard Jared Cohen lecture at Fairfield University. Not only did he engage a huge audience at the raw age of twenty-eight, he also quite freely said that if the older generation (e.g., me) can’t keep up with all the wonders of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all manner of cellphones, then just get out of the way.
I recall shoving my simpleton flip-phone deeper in my coat pocket.
He spoke that night about traveling around the world and asking questions of everyone he could. And I came to realize that Jared Cohen loves to bust assumptions. About his generation. About cultures. About politics. Even about social media. His expertise brings him face to face with leaders about policy change. And he won’t be boxed in anymore than the Web will. Try to stick a label on him, he’ll calmly remove it, place it on the floor, walk you a safe distance away, and blow it up. Then he’ll dig through the rubble of assumptions to find a nugget of something real…and practical. He even turned think tank on its head by becoming director of Google Ideas, a think/do tank.
Yet he seems surprisingly old-fashioned about person-to-person meetings and networking over a dinner table. Cohen collects antiques and vintage finds from foreign countries, political campaigns, pop culture. He showed me his funky-cool margarita maker, a gift from his buddy Jimmy Buffett (yes, I was envious).
A leader of the digital generation, he encourages us toward a frontier of policy-changing possibilities, while harboring an authentic respect for tradition, artifacts, the printed word, and family. And still, with his cell phone always within reach, he alerts us to a new world paradigm; Cohen is a master of how to navigate it.
By the way, I now own a smartphone, thanks to Jared Cohen’s encouraging shove forward.