Address at Online Dispute Resolution Forum 2017

I couldn’t make it to Paris, but managed despite some technical hiccups to be present virtually at the Online Dispute Resolution 2017 Forum through Skype Video. The agenda can be downloaded as a PDF from here.

I made a few overarching observations in the prescribed time that I had, which wasn’t much.

I noted that human rights and business enterprises were now inextricably entwined, with a rights-focus ostensibly centre and forward in many of the world’s leading companies. This includes specific UN initiatives in this regard. This wasn’t the case when in 2004 I entered the domain of ODR. I started by noting that I wasn’t part of the mainstream ODR community, which is anchored to commercial dispute resolution, and instead bring to the table experience around and an interest in using technology for the transformation of complex political emergencies, and violent conflict. This is a result of my work in Sri Lanka since 2002.

I commended the French in the audience on their electoral results, from yesterday and the election of President Macron, noting that the contest of ideas, and the pursuit of intellectual, fact-based (political) debate, in an age dominated by mercurial, parochial and petty politics at the global and local levels was very important, and set the tone and bar for other countries to follow.

I noted in particular the role of young voters and their association with technology, which functioned as an interlocutor. In had in mind the excellent points made in the BBC Newshour Extra podcast from just two days ago, focusing on what voters really take into account when making their choice in democratic elections; what motivates that very personal choice; and whether old ideologies allegiances have been swept aside to be replaced by new and stronger ties fostered by a more individual brand of politics.

The perception of and relationship with the world in this young(er) demographic – around polity, society, culture, history and so much more – was through their participation in social networks. I noted that the algorithmic basis for how news and information was filtered and featured wasn’t in the control of end-users and consumers, and instead in the hands of a few powerful trans-national companies headquartered in Silicon Valley. I highlighted this power asymmetry as a problem, and hinted at its ability to generate conflict and violence through exclusion, marginalization and algorithmic erasure.

I noted that when I first entered the ODR fold, my emphasis on developing for the mobile phone was treated with skepticism, at best. I noted that my vindication came from the ubiquity of the smartphone across so many countries and regions no matter what the socio-economic or political group, emphasizing the enduring need to create mobile-first applications around ODR. For many communities and individuals, their smartphones will be the only computer they ever own and can afford to use. ODR applications need to embrace this, especially since the loci of conflict and its transformation, I submitted, was now in the palms of billions.

I noted that an emergent challenge was around the transformation of disputes that were digital in nature, or digitally fomented, and also ephemeral. My example was Snapchat and content created on the platform that could give rise to, exacerbate or help in the transformation of violent conflict, but due to the nature of the app, platform and medium, expired after a certain time. And though it is possible through devious means to capture this information, it isn’t easy. This recalled my work on memorialization and archival of digital content.

Speaking to my point around mobile phones and devices as the primary vector through which millions would interact with ODR, I noted that data was the new oil. I said that if one couldn’t afford data, then one couldn’t participate in ODR platforms – something that could lead to a new data-rich class that rules over a data-scarce segment of a population.

I also flagged the need for gender to frame our discussions around ODR, noting that sexual orientation and gender identity play a huge role in violent conflict and its transformation – noting that any solution that by design or accident excluded women, could not really be an enduring, coherent or even a useful ODR solution.

I flagged the importance of media literacy, especially coming from a country – Sri Lanka – with a very high adult literacy but a very poor media literacy. I noted how this could directly contribute to the rise and spread of misinformation, disinformation and rumors, over social media channels, informing and sometimes even instigating real life violence.

I wanted to flag the role of social media in traditional diplomacy and the need to critically embrace privacy, as a guiding principle in ODR solution, but didn’t have the time. I did however focus on two key issues – the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. IoT, in line with my keynote presentation at the Build Peace conference in 2014, I said could lead to (violent) conflicts that we couldn’t even imagine today. With AI, recalling the recent words by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook on the development of AI technologies, I emphasized the role of ethics and the real dangers around big data, fed into AI platforms, that could exacerbate, inter alia, racial, gender based, systemic, geo-location or identity group based discrimination.

I ended my presentation imploring those present in the room to create a currency of hope, using technologies to create hope in domains where hopelessness fueled violence. To this end I recalled the French aphorism, mieux vaut prévenir que guérir, and noted that to prevent conflict was far more desirable than in seeking its transformation or resolution. I said ODR was inextricably entwined in all of this, and that it was my hope in the two days hence and years to come, the field would play an ever increasing role in the domain of peacebuilding, in addition to commercial dispute resolution.

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