The “formers,” as they have been dubbed by Google, will be surrounded by 120 thinkers, activists, philanthropists and business leaders. The goal is to dissect the question of what draws some people, especially young people, to extremist movements and why some of them leave.
“We are trying to reframe issues like radicalization and see how we can apply technology to it,” said Jared Cohen, the 29-year-old former State Department official who agreed to head Google Ideas with the understanding he would host such a conference. “Technology is part of every challenge in the world and a part of every solution.”
In forming Google Ideas, company officials said, they were eager to move beyond the traditional think tank model of conducting studies and publishing books, saying their “think/do tank” would make action a central part of its mission.
But in its first venture, the decision to enter the space between thinking and doing is also drawing some criticism as Google steps enthusiastically into what many view as an intractable, enduring problem — and one that has traditionally been left to governments.
Google Ideas may be setting its sights too high, said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and getting terrorists to give up violence may be a more attainable goal than getting them to change their sympathies.
“You’ll never make a hard-core jihadi into a Jeffersonian democrat — it’s just not going to happen,” he said. He also noted that while there may be common threads to why people join extremists groups, the remedies to that problem are more likely to be “culturally, and even country, specific.”
Harvard University professor Joseph S. Nye Jr., who specializes in theories and application of power, agreed that the endeavor “could be problematic — especially if it is perceived to be in conflict with the foreign policy of the United States.” He added that the ambition could “complicate things further since profit is ostensibly involved.”
Officials at Google express little concern that their efforts are overly ambitious or will tread in others’ territory.
Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said the company decided to get in the think tank business with the goal of tackling “some of the most intractable problems facing mankind by combining a new generation of leaders with technology. . . . We’re not looking for silver bullets but new approaches.”
Up to now, efforts to reform extremists have largely been government-run and focused on distinct groups. Many of the programs have operated in Muslim countries, and their sponsors have struggled with whether it was enough to get radicals to disengage from extremist movements or whether they must reject extremism and embrace mainstream values.