Great Need for PeaceTech

We love movies that reach into the future without losing touch with the world of today. We may react similarly when someone mentions PeaceTech (peace technology), viewing it as science fiction—but not necessarily.

In the days before YouTube, my high school history teacher showed us a documentary film during a lesson on the Nazi regime in Germany. Usually, the behavior of our class was a cross between ironic or cynical and bored or disinterested. It was certainly never quiet. However, this documentary showed the opening of Auschwitz right after the war and the remains of the concentration camp victims there. It was so grave to see that the whole class fell silent. Even my teacher could not speak afterwards. Maybe this could be an example of simplepeace technology: using the documentation of war atrocities to keep the war memories alive, thus sustaining peace.

PeaceTech may sound futuristic, but it is definitely not a recent invention. Fast forward to the YouTube-influenced media world of today, where the violent recruitment strategies of groups, such as Isis, drastically show how easily PeaceTech documentaries of violence can be used as WarTech. Technology is never unidirectional.

PeaceTech refers to technology being used to take tangible steps towards comprehensive and sustainable peace. So, could we say that lack of peace + technology = peace? Is it really that simple? Of course not.

It is often said that technology is neutral and its use can lead to either positive or negative outcomes, depending on the application of the technology. The neutrality argument has been used, for example, by Facebook, which has described itself as a neutral platform not responsible for the content or the publications. However, Facebook has come under pressure for failing to take action against hate speech in Myanmar, for allowing customer data to be collected without user permission, and for building psychological profiles on potential voters. So, technology is not neutral in practice, but can be utilized for many purposes. It can drive and enable sustainable peace and it allows a diversity of routes through which complex conflict scenarios can be expressed. Simultaneously (and maybe more dominantly) technology is a driver and enabler of conflict.

We have become highly digitalized societies. This suggests that peace-making efforts need to take advantage of technology as well.

Technology and digitalization are an increasingly integral part of society: not in the sense that the term “cyberspace” was used when it was coined in the early 1980s, but in the sense of surrounding and interacting with us as an omnipresence, which disappears for that very reason. We have become highly digitalized societies, where algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robotics play a central role in new developments. All of this suggests that peace-making efforts need to take advantage of technology as well. Thus, PeaceTech can offer much more than simply a means of admiring technology. It can offer new avenues to explore in the search for peace. Since violent conflict is a massive global problem, the digital avenue cannot be ignored in the search for peace.

The argument that we need PeaceTech because of WarTech may seem mundane, but it is a reality. WarTech is booming, although not always with this label or very visibly. Nevertheless, cyber weapons are used openly as well, and as though that were not bad enough, they are used to target civilians directly or indirectly. Targeting and disrupting the infrastructure seems to be common. According to the New York Times, “the United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cyber tools more aggressively”. The incursions are part of the revenge on Russian incursions against American data networks. The United States and Russia are waging a digital cold war—and it is threatening to heat up.

Actors driving a form of violent conflict known as violent extremism have been remarkable in utilizing digital channels for marketing, propaganda, and recruitment. The goal of the FCA partner’s work in Uganda is an example of countering that dynamic and actively preventing recruitment. It is clear that data on people, groups, relationships, locations, etc. is being used to plan and execute violent operations, which can escalate into full-fledged conflicts. Maybe it is at this point that one begins to wonder how far the peace-making process could go, if this highly relevant, high-quality data were indeed used to reduce or prevent violent conflicts rather than to fuel them.

My favorite PeaceTech story started already in 2008 when a group of people developed a map-based reporting service, called ushahidi, in order to respond to post-election violence in Kenya. Ushahidi is the Swahili word for testimony and it simply refers to allowing people to report and locate events on a map. Thus, ushahidi is a tool building on positive crowd wisdom. An MIT study found that compared with the national media in Kenya, this tool was more accurate for reporting incident. Ushahidi actually became a global story. For example, it was launched in Japan after the earthquake in 2011. Ushahidi platforms have been launched even a more than a decade later. An example of this is HarrasMap, a platform for reporting sexual harassment and, in the end, to reduce sexual harassment in Egypt drastically. This is a PeaceTech example because it reduces violence against women, thus contributing to peace.

PeaceTech then only means that society should learn how to apply its best developments and technologies for people to transform their conflicts without violent methods. In order to sustain peace, we need to catch up with where society is today.

Text: Matthias Wevelsiep
The writer is an expert on peace work. He currently works as SeniorDevelopment Manager for Digital Transition at Finn Church Aid.

Illustrations: Tuukka Rantala