Writing in pacifism to technology – An impossible vision?

There a very interesting article on ArsTechnica on the open source initiative Global Processing Unit (GPU) and it’s tryst with the Free Software Foundation and GPL for making its tool explicitly for non-violent purposes, barring the use of the tool by the military.

The article brings out the internal tensions within the pacifist argument, that upon first reading sounds like a truly useful idea. I can appreciate this tension – Groove Virtual Office, a tool used extensively by InfoShare for the support architectures for the Sri Lanka One Text Initiative, was not designed as a tool for peacebuilding and is also used, we are led to believe, extensively by the US military. Some of the tools we tested very early on, such as the Semantic Navigator, were designed to be part of the disturbing (now officially defunct) Total Information Awareness programme. The purposes we used and explored these tools in Sri Lanka were for processes and ends far removed from militarism and counter-insurgency intelligenece measures they were originally designed and developed for.

As the article points out:

For one thing, it’s not even clear what the language means. Code is not an autonomous agent that can go around bombing people or hauling them from burning buildings. And although the authors want to prevent military use, the patch says nothing about the military, implying that the military could in fact use the software for “peaceful” purposes, which raises questions of its own. Does modeling a nuclear explosion count as causing harm to any human being?

In other words, if the same clause for non-military use of tools was in operation at the time the internet was created by DARPA, would we now enjoy the vast possibilities for peacebuilding that the internet and web now offer?

This is a central tension within ICT4Peace as well – whether we can somehow ensure by design the non-violent and non-military use of the technologies we espouse for peacebuilding, or whether we are willing to countenance that technology itself is value neutral and can, on occasion, be used in violent ways that ultimately may contribute to a just and sustainable peace. In Understanding terrorism better through technology I explore how technology can help us respond to Manichean worldviews and actions by extremists – cognisant that the technologies that help us better understand and respond to terrorism may well be the very same that they use to terrorise us.

Coming full circle, even though the intent of GPU is noble, it may well be unworkable and untenable in the long run. To limit the use of technology to pacifism is, I would argue, to stunt its development. Whether we like it or not, most of the radical advancements in technology come not from R&D into their peaceful uses, but from billions of dollars spent on how we can obliterate “enemies” and “terrorists”. However, the appropriation of tools used in war by those interested in non-violence, conflict resolution and peacebuilding has occured throughout history.

In our support for peace, we should not dictate how tools are to be used, but demonstrate by example and by our support, how the same tools can be used to bring people together, enhance reconciliation and address the root causes of terrorism. This, I submit, is far more useful that writing in clauses that prescribe how tools should and should not be used.

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