Peace and technology

On Saturday, I gave a short presentation in Zurich on some ideas and challenges related to peacebuilding, a term used and abused a great deal. In Sri Lanka, peacebuilding is for most immediately associated with an industry of actors engaged in conflict resolution or transformation initiatives – locally, regionally or nationally. It’s an association that’s problematic, since for many years –not entirely without merit but often with vindictive, parochial or partisan intent that goes far beyond constructive criticism –  media and mainstream politics have badgered civil society individuals and collectives engaged in this pursuit. On the face of it, searching for and strengthening peace, not unlike a cure for cancer, isn’t something that can be publicly or vehemently opposed. But opposition it does generate, and does so by how peace is defined, communicated and defended. In 2007, I published a column in a mainstream newspaper that clearly noted my opposition to the war, and the despotic, illiberal government of the day. The response, as expected, was deeply divided – readers loved it or hated it, and there was little middle ground. Therein lies the challenge of peacebuilding writ large – it is easy to convince those who are already sold on the idea, but much harder, if not downright impossible to engage those who believe in a war as a means to an end, or the idea that the end (a sort of peace) justifies the means.

My interest in all this goes back to my Masters in University where I studied technology and conflict resolution, but also predates it, when as an undergraduate student in Delhi in the late 90’s, I witnessed the opening up on India’s economy and with it, the advent of the Internet and computing. Back then, I enjoyed better connectivity in Ratmalana than in Delhi. As various computing qualifications (son, who knows AutoCAD or daughter, who knows WordPerfect and Dbase III Plus) found their way into marriage proposals published in the newspapers, I wondered – what impact would technology have on social and political relations, in India and more broadly, in South Asia? This was a time of extremely heightened tensions between India and Pakistan on account of Kashmir, and I wondered what impact communications in the hands of citizens, instead of just propaganda promoted by governments, would have on violent conflict. This was before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and every single thing taken for granted on social media today. It was before in fact the term social media was ever defined or used, and when the only mobile phones around were in fact mobile gyms for strong men. It was when email was basically Yahoo! with around 2Mb per account, before Gmail, when seeking out A/S/L on ICQ was still a thing and MSN Messenger was ‘new’. It was at a time when a wonderful cacophony of noise and blinking lights prefaced connecting to the Internet, and indeed, a year before Google was incorporated as a company. I wondered then, as I continue to do now, what impact would technology have for peacebuilding, and by extension, how would it be used to promote, justify and indeed, hide the cost of war?

Responses to my column in 2007 revealed the extent to which media and communications were in Sri Lanka, already inextricably entwined with the promotion of war. With the fascism of the LTTE and the authoritarianism of government working in tandem, albeit towards very different ends, disinformation campaigns, propaganda and the open, uncontested promotion of incredible claims had already consumed the average citizens through their daily media diet. Lies, repeated for long enough, become indistinguishable from the truth. Through control, censorship and containment – often through violence – reality was constructed, and those who believed in either the narrative of the LTTE or the government could not engage with any conflicting viewpoint or critical questioning. Though we enjoy a very different socio-political context today and even sans the LTTE, the challenge around creating, communicating and sustaining a just peace remains. Why else would there be such hostility around the setting up on the Office for Missing Persons? Why else would there be such violence around the term accountability, even before it is fleshed out? Why else do so many in Sri Lanka remain ignorant of what happened in Nandikadal? Why else are Southern ‘heroes’ so markedly different then and alien to those in the North? Despotic governments, and non-state actors like ISIS are today the most agile, powerful agents in shaping news and information to suit their ends. I’ve witnessed what was the early promise of and potential for emancipation, and architectures of direct, or more responsive democracy, usurped by partisan political interests and increasingly by commercial profit. Only last week, the Editor of one of Norway’s oldest and best known newspapers said he feared Facebook, for the absolute control it had in deleting and blocking content first published in print.  To even talk about the potential of technology for peacebuilding requires a sober assessment of just how much it has failed, and indeed, contributed towards the normalisation of violence, the justification of wars and in Sri Lanka, the premeditated erasure of an inconvenient, recent past.

I continue to have hope. The headlines, news feeds and updates overwhelmingly focus on what’s wrong or going very wrong. There is much that is being done right, in Sri Lanka and beyond. Despite all the violent pushback online and vicious trolling, GLBTIQ communities, women, identity groups that are for whatever reason on the margins of society and politics, adolescent aspirations, small social movements, individuals who bear witness, conversations around race and privilege, information leaks in the public interest, real time updates from locations where no mainstream media has ever been to or will, perspectives that are unusual, voices not usually heard – all this and more is possible now, without permission or cost, for even the illiterate, because of technology. From the information scarcity of just a few years ago we now have a crisis of choice when dealing with a news glut, and peace as a result, engaged with today, is a contested, complex virtual construct as much as it is something that we seek to establish in the real world.

It’s an interesting time to work in this domain. I find myself often at the intersection of politics, media, social change, memorialisation and civic media, all the while trying to imagine (new, innovative, sustainable) ways to connect technology to strengthen, organically, what are essentially fragile conversations, connections or communications.  I am often angered and frustrated by what I have to deal with, but the work is never uninteresting. And while I keep abreast with technology as much as, if not more than I keep abreast with political developments, what drives me is an interest in rights, ethics and dignity. The first requires me to fight for the voice of those I disagree vehemently with in online and other fora.  The second checks my own privilege, and encourages me to engage and reflect in a manner that is hard on ideas, yet gentle on interlocutors. The third is what for me technology, in the domain of peacebuilding, can bring about, to those who have often suffered the most from systemic discrimination. Who knows what the next five or ten years will bring by way of technologies that will shape us. For over fourteen years, I have been driven by an interest in helping the work and ideas of better, far brighter minds in politics, advocacy, activism and academia take root, often in contexts extremely adverse to what is being discussed or proposed. There is no recipe for success here, no panacea. But in technology is the power to transform the worst of our nature.

That interests and inspires me.


First published in The Sunday Island, 11 September 2016.


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